Someone to watch over a soldier

Acadiana facility trains service dogs

U.S. Army Maj. Jesse Greaves was unaware that while he was in Iraq chasing al-Qaida, witnessing deadly explosions and seeing children kidnapped for political gain, he also was accruing post-traumatic stress disorder.

That realization came only after the soldier from upstate New York returned home and found himself overwhelmed with worry and unable to concentrate after the birth of his first child, he said.

Greaves sought counseling at Fort Polk where he was stationed, and it was his counselor who first suggested that a service dog might be beneficial for him, he said.

With few programs dedicated to training service dogs for people with PTSD and with the Department of Veterans Affairs denying payment for mental health service dogs, the waiting list was long and the cost high, Greaves said.

But in a Jan. 15 ceremony at Fort Polk, Greaves will receive a 6-month-old Airedale terrier that has been affordably trained to meet his needs.

The male dog, named Buttercup by Greaves’ 3-year-old daughter, was the first service dog trained by Joe Tullier, owner of Acadiana Canine Training in Livingston, and the beginning of a program that Tullier said he hopes will make service dogs more readily available and affordable for wounded service members.

The program began in August when Greaves contacted Tullier, a former military working dog handler, to find out whether Tullier would be willing to train service dogs for wounded soldiers.

Tullier said he was eager to help. As a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and chronic PTSD stemming from a grenade explosion in Fallujah, Iraq, Tullier said he understands the struggles Greaves and other wounded soldiers face.

Tullier also was among a select group of servicemen who were trainers at the Department of Defense’s dog training school at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where he “trained dogs from scratch” in obedience, agility and task-oriented skills such as detecting explosives, he said.

Tullier now uses that experience in the dog-training business he started in 2011 with his wife Cami, father Barry, and Marine Corps buddy and fellow military dog trainer, Josh Delancey.

Since August, Tullier and Greaves have worked together not only to find and train a dog for Greaves, but also to design a program through which other wounded service members could find dogs to suit their needs.

“For someone with PTSD, the dogs will wake them up if they’re having nightmares or cue on an anxiety attack and take action to snap them out of it before they get stuck in that tunnel vision mode,” Tullier said.

Such actions can include grabbing the soldier’s hand, pawing at the chest or barking if the dog is a naturally vocal breed, he said.

“We’re also teaching them to pre-go around corners to see if someone’s there and cue the handler so they won’t be startled,” Tullier said. “The goal is just to prevent the anxiety attacks as much as possible so they can live more comfortably from day-to-day.”

Buttercup, for example, has been trained to sit three feet in front of Greaves to create a cushion of space between him and unsuspecting people who may approach too quickly or too close for comfort, Tullier said.

“The closeness causes anxiety for him, so that’s what we want to prevent,” Tullier said.

Buttercup will face Greaves at all times, both to concentrate on Greaves’ demeanor and to ward off any well-meaning people who might otherwise approach.

Service dogs also will be trained to perform tasks such as picking up dropped objects or opening a door for soldiers with amputated limbs or other physical disabilities, he said.

For Greaves, who has a lung disorder, finding a hypo-allergenic dog was important, Tullier said.

Buttercup was 7 weeks old when he first moved in with Greaves for about a month to promote bonding.

Buttercup then moved in with Tullier in November and began a 10-week training period at Acadiana Canine Training’s Livingston facility.

Greaves and other recipient soldiers also will participate in training sessions to further bond with their dogs and refine their skills under Tullier’s mentorship.

“I think they will find it even more rewarding to have that opportunity to actually participate in the training, rather than just having a dog handed to them at the end,” he said.

The shared training responsibility also helps cut costs.

Acquiring an adult, pre-trained service dog can cost upwards of $10,000, Tullier said, but under this program, Buttercup’s acquisition, medical testing, vaccinations and training cost Greaves only $4,000.

Under a Sept. 5 Department of Veterans Affairs ruling, the VA does not provide benefits for service dogs unless they are acquired to help with vision, hearing or mobility issues. Service dogs for mental impairments such as PTSD are specifically excluded because of a lack of scientific evidence proving a “medical benefit” despite the VA’s acknowledgment that such dogs can improve their handlers’ quality of life, the ruling states.

However, the Army will pay for soldiers to attend seminars so they can learn how to handle the dogs, which is how some of the training is accomplished, Tullier said.

After Greaves receives Buttercup, Tullier will do another in-depth session with the pair focused on the specific tasks Buttercup has been taught. Later, the pair will take an accreditation test, Tullier said.

A soldier’s nurse case manager and commanding officer will determine whether a service dog will be appropriate for a soldier’s therapy, Greaves said.

Greaves described himself, for example, as being a “high-functioning” person with PTSD and said service dogs may not be the answer for soldiers with more intense “battle rattle.”

Many service members who don’t qualify for service dogs, however, might benefit from therapy dogs, Tullier said.

Where service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for their handlers, the role of a therapy dog is simply to boost morale and brighten the day of those confined to the hospital, he said.

In addition to delivering Buttercup to Greaves, Tullier will also take two of his trained therapy dogs Jan. 15 to the Bayne Jones Army Community Hospital at Fort Polk for a demonstration.

Staff at the hospital are eager to see the dogs in action, learn how they might help the wounded soldiers there and possibly start a therapy dog program, public affairs official Kathy Ports said.

Tullier said he hopes to make the trip regularly, providing two trainers and two therapy dogs for the patients on a twice-monthly basis, he said.

The visits will give Tullier an opportunity to provide a service that was unavailable when he was retired from service in 2009, he said.

“That’s what makes it so incredible for me,” he said. “I’m giving these guys something I didn’t have while doing something I’ve always loved to do.”