Dogs are man’s best friend – but for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, they are a lifesaver.
Defence Community Dogs visited Canberra, the country’s biggest concentration of ADF personnel, last Thursday to introduce their assistance dogs: rescued or rehomed Labradors, trained by prison inmates, that help serving and former ADF members manage illness and injuries.
Veteran Miles Jones* said getting his dog two years ago made a profound difference to his life. Three decades in the military had left its scars.
“Before I got him, I was in a bad space. … I’d sort of disconnected from my children, my grandchildren, my wife. It was getting very, very difficult.
“He came into my life two years ago. It’s absolutely amazing the change. I say to people he’s not a fix-all, and he’s not; he’s a tool in the toolbox, but it’s like having a toolbox without a hammer. He’s that important.”
The dogs are trained to alleviate symptoms of PTSD, trainer Teneka Priestly explained: shaking legs; obsessive compulsive behaviour like rubbing skin until it bleeds, flicking bands until bruised, squeezing thumbs and fingers; and night terrors. The dogs can also obey a ‘Block’ command to stop people entering their owners’ personal space; turn on lights; and scan rooms.
“I’ve started to reconnect with people,” Mr Jones said. “I’ve started to go out again and socialise. I’m not as uncomfortable going into shopping centres anymore; especially with my kids, it’s been awesome. The changes he’s made are absolutely profound.”
Mr Jones is one of 52 Australian veterans with a Defence assistance dog; 12 more dogs are being trained.
Leanne Kyle set up the program in 2013, having learnt that dogs were helping with military PTSD in the UK and US. She called the program a ‘win-win-win’.
“This program saves three lives. It provides abandoned dogs with a second chance; rehabilitates inmates; and saves the lives of Australian Defence Force veterans.”
Some of the dogs come from rescue organisations like Lab Rescue, others are rehomed. All are Labradors.
“We find that Labradors are very easy to train,” Ms Priestly said. “They are a great all-round dog. Generally, their temperaments are very, very good, and they’re accepted in the community.”
Inmates at Bathurst Correctional Complex spend almost a year training the dogs, working with Ms Priestley and other trainers. Accompanied by prison officers, the inmates take the dogs to nursing homes, schools, hospitals, riding schools, libraries, shopping centres, and train stations – anywhere veterans might go.
Many inmates find it hard to integrate back into society, Ms Kyle said. “This is a really nice conduit to them getting back out in society, because we take the dogs out every day. This gives them the opportunity to get out and start to talk to people, to go back into shops after many years of not talking to the public.”
Training the dogs, Ms Priestly believes, gives the inmates responsibility for another creature, and teaches them to be consistent.
The program works; the recidivism rate is zero.
“We haven’t had one of the inmates come back to custody yet that has done this program,” Bathurst Correctional Complex’s acting governor Brett Lees said.
“The inmates that go through the program get a new lease on life,” he said. “You really see them change when they do this program. I’ve seen the same inmates now for two years – and they’re totally different when they finish from when they started.
“For a lot of inmates, especially in custody, it’s all about yourself. But when they’re looking after the dogs, it’s all about something else. They take pride and ownership in making sure these dogs are well trained to hand over to a veteran. They’ve got high self-esteem when doing this. It just changes their whole outlook on life.”
The inmates in the program, he said, are “just average blokes that have done something wrong in the past” – drug offences, not murder or sexual assault.
At the end of the 10 months, the veterans spend eight days at the Bathurst prison, meeting the Labradors, and learning how to train the dogs, manage and handle them, veterinary care, and advanced dog training skills. At the end, the inmates hand the dogs over to their new owners.
“I’ll be honest, it’s a tearjerker,” Mr Lees said. “They’ve raised this dog for 10 months; they’ve got to hand it over to somebody suffering from fairly serious traumatic experiences, and it’s tears all around.”
For the inmates, there is often another dog; some will train two or three in a row. Mr Lees has also heard from the veterans and their families about the good the dogs do.
“They save lives, they really do save lives,” he said. “One veteran’s wife said: ‘I’m not afraid to leave him alone now. I know he’s still going to be at home when I get there, because the dog’s there.’ Her fear was that she would go to work and then come home and find her husband had done something.”
“If a veteran needs some help, and they might like a dog, let them know about it,” Ms Kyle said. “We’re here to save lives; we’re here to make veterans’ lives better.”
“There is still a lot of stigma [about PTSD] in the Defence force, and a lot of people still keep quiet,” Mr Jones said. “They’re worried about their careers; they’re worried about the way their mates will see them.
“We need to get past that. I was one of those people, but sometimes we all need a little help. And these dogs are an amazing part of that.
“A dog’s not going to be for everybody, and everyone’s got their own way of doing everything they need to do. But we need to get past that stigma, that feeling of shame, and just open yourselves up to it.”
It takes $10,000 to train each dog. Defence Community Dogs is funded by the Defence Bank Foundation, a registered charity that supports current and former ADF members suffering from injuries or illnesses.
*: Not his real name