For many veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, transitioning back into everyday life can be a struggle when every noise, crowd or shadow is perceived as a threat.
So when Dave Childress, 36, found himself packed into a room with more than 300 people during Sen. Bob Corker's "Joint Operation" convention for veterans in September, his body was tense and he was on high alert.
"I was ready to bolt," admits Childress, who had remained isolated since returning from an eight-year career with the Marine Corps in 2006.
That's when he felt his 3-year-old service dog, Fox, gently nudging his leg. Little by little, the Marine diverted his attention from the world of imagined threats and began scratching the hound behind the ear.
"Next thing I know, I'm comfortable, I'm talking to people," he said. "That was probably the most impactful moment."
Childress' account is only one of the success stories to come out of North Georgia nonprofit Operation Freedom Dogs, which graduated its first four veterans and their new psychiatric service dogs this August.
As OFD gears up to take on its second group of trauma survivors this month, co-founder and director Adam Keith is looking toward a future filled with possibility.
Keith and Army veteran Matt Weitz started the all-volunteer organization in 2014 with a mission to help rescued dogs and servicemen living with combat-related PTSD by bringing them together.
Traditionally, trainers have preferred to groom breeds like Labradors and Golden Retrievers for service, as they learn at a faster rate than other dogs. But OFD has set itself apart by enlisting dogs rescued from local shelters like the Pet Placement Center in Red Bank and the East Ridge Animal Shelter.
Canine candidates are "put through the wringer" to determine whether they have the right temperament to be a service dog, and even then, each pick comes with a bit of risk, said Keith. Aside from knowing little about how smart or obedient the chosen dog might be, trainers often know nothing about their background, history of abuse or health.
Still, Childress, who now volunteers with OFD, believes the dogs are worth the risk — especially since the training process has been just as healing for Fox as it has been for him.
"We're taking dogs who, like the veterans, have had a hard life," said Childress, recounting how he's seen the nervousness evaporate from Fox, who was found living out of a dumpster behind a Dollar Store. "We're rescuing the dogs and the veterans."
Unlike other organizations that pair individuals with assistance dogs to help them adjust to life with a disability, the instructors at OFD teach veterans to train their dogs themselves during a six-month program held at the Obedience Club of Chattanooga.
The goal is to give participants the tools needed to train their next dog once their current companion retires, Keith said.
After going through an equally rigorous application process to ensure they can care for a dog, the four selected veterans teach their new partner general obedience, instruct them through obstacles and take them on field trips to public places to put their new skills to the test. Most importantly, they teach the dogs skills to accommodate their specific anxiety-related disabilities.
Dogs can smell when their owners are experiencing increased levels of stress due to hormones released by the body, noted Keith, a professional trainer himself. Since their owner may be unaware of their rising stress levels, the dogs are trained to alert them to the change — even with just a nudge to their leg — so they have a chance to cool down, preventing a panic attack or episode.
The dogs can also work to pull their veteran back to reality during an episode by initiating tactile stimulation, like resting on the veteran's lap, to draw the veteran's focus to them, Childress added.
"Of course, Fox just wants to get petted, probably," he joked.
Since lack of sleep is one of the most common problems people with PTSD face, the veterans can train their dogs to pull the blanket off of them or the pillow from under them to wake them up when they're having a nightmare. The dogs can also lie across their owner's chest to ease their anxiety, much like a weighted blanket would, helping him or her fall asleep and stay asleep longer.
To further ease their transition back into public areas, veterans can teach their dogs to signal them when someone is approaching from behind, lessening their apprehension of being startled. They can also teach the dog to perform a non-aggressive move on cue to casually clear out a little space between their owner and another individual, should anxieties arise.
"The tasks we can teach them are pretty endless," Keith said.
Though the focus is mainly on service dogs, Keith said the nonprofit's ultimate goal is to re-acclimate the veterans into the society they fought to protect.
The first three weeks of training are dedicated to team building between the four students and their instructors, who are also veterans, re-creating the brotherhood they left on the battlefield. The group setting also allows the servicemen to become more comfortable interacting with civilians again, as many of the additional volunteers have never served.
"There's a lot of places and people trying to help veterans but there's nothing that we're aware of that's plugging veterans in to help change their lifestyle," Keith said.
All four of the inaugural graduates have taken on volunteer roles in OFD to give back to the organization, and Keith hopes to see similar success stories come out of the January group, and the third group of four he plans to bring in for summer 2018.
"Where Dave was when he first started and where he is today is a complete night-and-day difference," Keith said. "I can't wait to see what others are capable of, too."
Email Myron Madden at firstname.lastname@example.org