What is post-traumatic stress disorder?
Force Health Protection & Readiness, under the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, describes it as "a condition that develops after someone has experienced a life-threatening situation, such as combat. In PTSD, the event must have involved actual or threatened death or serious injury and caused an emotional reaction involving intense fear, hopelessness or horror. People with PTSD have three kinds of experiences for weeks or months after the event is over and the individual is in a safe environment."
Rhiannon Miller, the daughter of military veterans, was watching her mother happily play with one of her Borzois when she came upon an idea to train psychiatric service dogs for veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder.
That idea led to the Miller family creating Operation Wolfhound, now a nationally networked organization. Since 2008, the organization has placed more than 60 dogs – mostly Borzois – with veterans who have served in wars and tours dating back to the Vietnam War.
And Miller, a University of Arizona psychology student, is taking over the organization her parents established years ago after she vetted her idea.
"There were many studies coming out at the time about the PTSD rates in the military, and both of my parents were also longtime sufferers of the condition," said Miller, who began her first semester at the UA this year.
Miller, who recently traveled to Nevada to speak to medical professionals about the benefits of psychiatric service dogs, noted recent research that drives her work.
Studies have found that positive interactions with dogs lead humans to experience substantial releases of serotonin and oxytocin, naturally occurring chemicals that result in positive emotions and emotional responses.
"By tapping into that, and reaching out to their dogs when they are stressed, veterans learn to reduce their responses to certain stimuli as well as train the dog to know when the veteran is stressed," Miller said.
And the Borzoi is an especially good breed because the dogs are highly intelligent, thoughtful, insightful and aware, said Alicia Miller, Rhiannon Miller's mother.
That attentive nature is especially crucial. The Miller family regularly receives placement requests from individuals who are feeling numb, aloof, depressed and suicidal. In many cases, veterans have lost touch with their family members. They have lost jobs and, often, have difficulty interacting with anyone.
But the benefits that come with being paired with a dog are so much more pronounced. Veterans have been taken off of medications, have gotten jobs, gotten married and graduated from college after being paired.
"It literally changes the brain chemistry in minutes. There are biomechanical reasons why these dogs work for veterans," Alicia Miller said. "The sooner the dog starts interacting with the veterans, the less likely they are to have long-term problems because the bad habits are broken quickly."
Andrew Kidd can attest to the benefits of being paired, and said he was grateful to Rhiannon Miller and her family for connecting him with "Epic."
Kidd, who now lives in Oklahoma, enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1995, most recently serving as a senior chief petty officer. He was released in August 2012 and said he has experienced depression and began to withdraw form society, having been diagnosed with PTSD and a mild case of traumatic brain injury.
After learning about Operation Wolfhound, he flew to Tucson to meet the Millers and Epic. The two had a near immediate bond.
"In the military, you learn about teamwork and leadership, but one of the key things to survival is having your battle buddy," said Kidd, who retired from civilian law enforcement work after returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"You're living, eating, sleeping and fighting with a group of people. But when you go home, you're all by yourself," he said. "Your whole life has changed. You don't have that battle buddy anymore."
But Kidd now has 14-month-old Epic.
Kidd recalled an experience watching a high-action film. At the very moment the film began to make him anxious, Epic came to rest on top of him. Epic had already made the connection.
"If I'm driving and traffic is bad I get tense, and he'll just lay his head over my shoulder. If I'm in a strange public situation where it gets more boisterous, he'll put himself between me and other people," Kidd said. "He's my battle buddy."
That, to Rhiannon Miller, is the sign of a perfect match and a successful therapy.
Dogs that are to be paired with veterans spend at least two weeks in training, learning. Before being officially paired, the veteran and dog must spent another two weeks becoming acclimated to one another. During that time, the veteran learns how to handle and develop trust in the dog and the dog gains a strong sense of the needs of the veteran.
"Our most popular command is 'watch my six,' where the dog is always paying attention to what is behind the veteran make sure to put itself between the veteran and any large groups of people or the biggest perceived – by the dog – threat in the area," Rhiannon Miller said. "It teaches the veteran to trust the dog's senses more than his or her own."
Also, veterans are not charged to be paired with dogs, but they must commit to a period of training with Rhiannon Miller and her parents.
Through their extensive nationwide network, and connections that have led to placements in Canada and England, the Millers work with breeders who then donate dogs to veterans. Others also have donated dog food and funding to cover a minimal amount of the costs; some have donated their cars for trips to place dogs.
The first placement under Operation Wolfhound was to a civilian through a connection with the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System Home. The woman had been the victim of a home invasion and was having trouble even connecting with her own children. The next placement was with a military veteran who was suicidal.
"I feel very strongly about taking care of our vets, especially when they return," Rhiannon Miller said.
"This is very close to home," she said. "It's about doing the right thing. There is a great need, and I feel that it must be addressed."