(1 of ) Flute retrieves a prescription medicine bottle while trainins with apprentice instructor Chelsey Darrow at Canine Companions for Independence, in Santa Rosa, on Monday, September 12, 2016. Flute is being trained as a service dog for veterans with PTSD. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
(2 of ) Flute locates Michelle Williams during a search training exercise at Canine Companions for Independence, in Santa Rosa, on Monday, September 12, 2016. Flute is being trained as a service dog for veterans with PTSD. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
(3 of ) Apprentice instructor Chelsey Darrow has Ingrid practice turning on lights in a room at Canine Companions for Independence, in Santa Rosa, on Monday, September 12, 2016. Ingrid is being trained as a service dog for veterans with PTSD. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
(4 of ) Apprentice instructor Chelsey Darrow, left, trains Ingrid to create space behind her during a scenario where she waits in line, with the aid of Michelle Williams, at Canine Companions for Independence, in Santa Rosa, on Monday, September 12, 2016. Ingrid is being trained as a service dog for veterans with PTSD. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT | September 12, 2016, 4:27PM
| Updated 3 hours ago.
“Meadow, search,” dog trainer Chelsey Darrow said, standing in the doorway of a mock apartment at Santa Rosa-based Canine Companions for Independence.
Her tail wagging like a metronome, the 2-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix rushed in and — seconds later — issued two full-throated barks.
“Meadow, Meadow, you got her,” Darrow said, rewarding her canine pupil with dry kibble.
If Darrow were a military veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Meadow’s barks would have warned her that someone else was in the apartment, or the dog’s silence would have reassured her the space was empty.
“It’s a big game for the dog,” Darrow said, after Meadow repeatedly found CCI staffer Michelle Williams in the apartment set up for training service dogs.
Meadow is among six dogs at CCI that are ready for placement as PTSD service dogs, with six more in training in a relatively new specialty for the intelligent, eager-to-please canines the local nonprofit has been training since 1975.
CCI, the largest nonprofit provider of assistance dogs, will train some of the 100 PTSD dogs to be placed with veterans suffering from psychological wounds under a Department of Veterans Affairs pilot program aimed at assessing the therapeutic efficacy of the human-canine pairings.
Until now, the VA had limited service dog benefits only to veterans with a physical disability, such as blindness, deafness and loss of limb, said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, co-chairman of the Military Veterans Caucus.
“I’ve seen firsthand the tremendous benefits service dogs provide for our veterans dealing with invisible wounds of war, like PTS and traumatic brain injuries,” said Thompson, a Vietnam War combat veteran, using the alternative acronym for the stress-induced condition.
The pilot program will make 100 PTSD dogs available while the VA completes a separate study that has paired 67 veterans with trained service dogs and companion dogs, which are basically pets, according to a Military Times report.
The study runs through 2017 and preliminary results are expected in 2018.
CCI, which provides four types of assistance dogs at no cost to their human partners, has placed more than 5,000 dogs — golden and Labrador retrievers and crosses of the two breeds — with disabled children and adults, including more than 140 dogs with physically disabled veterans.
The agency is training two types of dogs for the VA pilot program. Emotional support dogs will get basic obedience training and will provide “unconditional love” to their partner, primarily at home and essentially serving as a pet.
The dogs will learn to respond to five commands: “block” and “behind” tell the dog to stand in front of or behind the veteran, creating a safe space in a public area; “light” prompts the dog to flick on a light switch, usually with its nose; “search” instructs the dog to enter a building or room ahead of the veteran and bark if anyone is present; and “bring” is similar to “fetch” for specific items, such as a prescription pill bottle on a shelf or floor.
Experts say such tasks may help address core PTSD symptoms such as hyper-vigilance, which generates fear and alertness even in the absence of an objective threat, according to a VA press release.
“We train them to look behind curtains, under covers,” said Darrow, a former Army intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan.
Thompson said the pilot program was approved by the VA following a demonstration by CCI in Washington earlier this year, showcasing the benefits of service dogs for veterans with PTSD. The congressman encouraged veterans experiencing PTSD or other mental health issues to talk to their doctors about possible benefits from a service dog.
Paul Mundell, Canine Companions’ CEO, lauded Thompson’s effort to make more PTSD service dogs available, enabling veterans to “take full advantage of the physical and therapeutic benefits these remarkable dogs offer.”
Veterans will apply to the VA for a PTSD dog and the federal agency will connect them with CCI or another service dog training program, Williams said.