By Fred Woods
A Coast Guard veteran named Bama Brown will soon own a service dog named Tom Bryan. No, there’s no UA-AU conflict here. Bama was in the Coast Guard with a bunch of Yankees who thought he talked funny and they started calling him Bama because they thought he talked funny. He doesn’t. He talks like we do. But the nickname stuck.
The Opelika Kiwanis Club and Global K9 Solutions have been looking for a veteran who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Why? They want to give him a trained service dog named Tom. Actually the name Tom is the only fixed condition in the process. Tom Bryan, local insurance agent and former Auburn football star, was recently recognized for his significant contributions to the Kiwanis Club. As a part of the recognition and because of Bryan’s interest in helping veterans Kiwanis contracted with GK9S for a service dog, to be named Tom, to be trained and presented to a veteran/PTSD sufferer.
As of last week it appears the match has been made. A wheelchair-bound United States Coast Guard veteran named Randall “Bama” Brown needs a service dog and heard about the local opportunity from a veterinarian friend. Brown, who lives in Robertsdale, with his wife and four children, farms with his father-in-law. Along with his PTSD, Brown has begun having increased mobility problems over the past year.
About the same time, Brown says he began researching service dogs and what they offered to someone with his set of problems. When he found out about “Tom Bryan” it was like an answer to prayer. Brown came up to Opelika last week for an initial interview and will be back soon to train with his dog for several days.
Dogs are man’s best friends. And vice-versa. We’ve known this for a long time, that it works both ways. Human–canine bonding is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between humans and dogs that has long been studied by psychologists and other scientists and widely accepted by the rest of us.
Dogs are domesticated descendants of wolves, and have a significant impact and role in human lives. In the United States, more than 62 percent of people have a household pet and 37 percent of those pets are dogs.
The human-animal bond has existed for thousands of years. Pets are one thing, but therapy dogs, service dogs, herding dogs, police dogs and search and rescue dogs illustrate the tremendous bond that goes beyond mere partnership between man and dog.
The bond is what enables successful dog trainers to train dogs to serve in all of the above-mentioned roles so well. Global K9 Solutions, LLC, on Beehive Road just south of Auburn, specializes in training service and companion dogs for veterans. GK9S is owned by Liz and Fani Benecke and Howard Porter, Auburn businessman. Fani Benecke, a South Africa native, has been training dogs for more than 30 years.
Training dogs Fani’s way is very labor intensive and, because it is done in increments, is also very time consuming. All training is accomplished through positive reinforcement; absolutely no compulsion is involved. The length of training may be from two to six months. Fani says if it takes longer than six months, the dog is probably not suited to be a service dog.
The dog and the person have to matched up. Because all us animals, two and four-legged, have personalities, and because personalities don’t always mesh, we need to know that the person and the dog will “get along” before the training begins.
The preferred way is to start with the person. Even before the manifestations of PTSD are considered, there are basic human characteristics to be considered: Is the person active or sedentary? Does the person enjoy the company of others or does he like to keep to himself? Is he a nervous type or is he more laid-back? Last week’s interview between Brown and the dog trainers was intended to speed up the matching process.
Once the human and personal (and sometimes physical) traits are considered it is relatively easy to match the individual person with the individual dog. Then the specific training of the dog can begin. That’s what’s ahead for Bama Brown.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Persons suffering from PTSD generally have memories and vivid images of traumatic events. These occur suddenly, without obvious cause. They are often accompanied by intense emotions, such as grief, guilt, fear, anxiety or anger. Sometimes the emotions and images can be so vivid a person believes the trauma is actually reoccurring.
Traumatized individuals may attempt to avoid situations, people or events that remind them of their trauma. They may feel numb and emotionless; they may try to withdraw into themselves to try and shut out the painful memories and feelings.
Friends and family of PTSD sufferers sometimes feel rejected by them, as the affected individuals are unable to show normal affection and emotion.
That’s where the service dog and that natural bond between dog and human come in. Even without training, dogs frequently sense when their owner is feeling stress, but, with training, a service dog is quicker to react and give support.
There are two basic levels of training for service dogs: the first is less intensive and produces what can be termed “an emotional support dog.” This type of dog is basically a well-behaved “pet” companion who is trained to obey several commands, such as “heel;” “sit;” “stay” and “leave it,” which applies to food, another dog or a person.
All service dogs have to meet certain standards: they cannot be aggressive toward people or other animals; they cannot react adversely to sudden or loud noises or sudden moves and they must be comfortable in all environments, especially new ones.
In addition, service dogs are trained to do such tasks as turning on lights in a room; retrieving dropped objects, including things like cell phones and screwdrivers which are difficult for dogs to pick up; checking out rooms or houses before their master enters and to locate and signal by barking the presence of other people and blocking (creating a physical barrier) from front or rear if the master feels threatened or is suffering from a panic attack.
A dog trained at the emotional level is not recognized or certifiable as a full service dog and does not have the full access that a certified service dog enjoys. An emotional support dog can live in a house or apartment even if there is a “no pet” restriction and can accompany its owner on an airplane or other public conveyance, but basically that’s it.
On the other hand, fully trained and certified service dogs are by federal law, allowed access to any place where humans can commonly go. That includes restaurants, shops, grocery stores, all public places, taxis and all means of public transportation.
So its not like going to the pet store or even a dog pound. Bama, you’re getting another life partner. You’ve got some wok ahead of you. On behalf of the Kiwanians and all of us, we hope it will work out as well as the one you so obviously already have.