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'patriot dogs' help veterans

Zehnacker's son, Hunter, and his wife, Nancy, play with Abe -- a yellow lab puppy that will be trained to one day serve as a Patriot Service Dog in Becker County.1 / 2
retired marine Geoffrey Zehnacker and his psychiatric service dog, Luke, work together to overcome his emotional distress disorder, caused by traumatic brain injury.2 / 2

War has a way of leaving soldiers fighting a battle within themselves long after they are home safe.

"When I left Iraq I had a lot of aggression issues," said retired Marine Geoffrey Zehnacker, who worked did three tours in Iraq in a patrol that searched for mines and set off improvised explosive devises (IED's).

The ones they found on purpose they set off at a distance.

The ones they found by accident could be deadly.

"One went off five feet from me, and it gave me a concussion," said Zehnacker.

Not realizing he had a concussion, Zehnacker continued his duty, but with every new explosion, came another neurological interruption, eventually causing him to suffer from an emotional distress disorder caused by traumatic brain injury.

"The symptoms were a lot like PTSD," Zehnacker said, "I started having a lot of night terrors; I was aggressive, and I couldn't handle being out in crowds."

Zehnacker had gotten a yellow lab hunting dog named Luke, and although the dog was already four years old, the Marine knew his dog was his biggest hope for recovery.

Luke began training to be Zehnacker's service dog.

Like a dog leading the blind, Luke began leading his owner out of his debilitating mental illness.

"He learned how to wake me up from my nightmares -- he'll physically crawl on top of me, restrain me and lick," said Zehnacker, "A dog's lick is like somebody saying, 'it's going to be fine'."

Zehnacker said his wife and children also provide comfort for him, but Luke allows him to function without always relying on his family.

"As funny as it sounds, I can cuddle with him even easier than I can with my wife," said Zehnacker, "He's something to hold when I'm having night terrors, and it's peace of mind having him there when I go to bed ... I know I'm going to be OK. "

"There are certain things that Luke can help Jeff with that I cannot, and I respect that," said Zehnacker's wife, Nancy, "I don't know everything that went on there (in Iraq) and if he wants to tell me, that's fine, but if not, he has Luke."

Wearing a vest identifying him as a service dog, Luke accompanies Zehnacker everywhere he goes.

"He always knows where the exits are," said Zehnacker, "So when he starts to sense that I'm starting to feel anxious, which he can sense before even I can, he will physically start pulling me out toward the door."

Luke is now so tuned into his owner's emotions, he knows exactly when to jump in and take over.

"Before, when I was at work, I would get mad and start stumbling my words, and not knowing how to really say what I wanted to say, I'd get aggressive and go after somebody to hit them, but Luke would stop me.

He would physically restrain me by jumping up onto my lap and start licking my face."

Zehnacker says Luke has sped up his recovery exponentially, resulting in decreased medication and increased independence.

And although the retired Marine and Delaware native is still in the midst of his move to Becker County, his story will soon be shared by local veterans who also suffer from PTSD or similar symptoms.

That's because local shelter and pet boarding facility, Lucky Dog, is teaming up with Becker County Veterans Services to launch a program called "Patriot Service Dogs".

"We've had a lot of vets here in Becker County who have inquired about this," said Becker County Veterans Service Officer Lauri Brooke.

"Our vets come back (from war) and sometimes they can't talk to their families about what's going on in their head because it isn't pleasant, and they want to protect them -- so PTSD becomes a very isolating illness," said Brooke, "That's where these dogs can help."

Lucky Dog co-owner Linda Wiedewitsch and her staff are currently training seven dogs to become psychiatric service dogs.

Some of them are shelter dogs, some have been donated to them for the program and a couple of them are born and bred for the purpose.

Wiedewitsch says dogs can provide people suffering from PTSD with a form a treatment not even medication can provide.

"There are things with perspiration, blood pressure, blood sugar -- anything chemistry related they can sense, including when adrenaline is being released," said Wiedewitsch, "And the dogs don't differentiate whether you're scared or angry, they just know ... you're changing, and I need to do something about that."

Wiedewitsch says each dog will be matched up with a vet and trained for their specific needs.

Brooke says vets suffering from PTSD will often have anxiety or fear of somebody sneaking up on them.

So Wiedewitsch is currently teaching one of the service-dogs-in-training (named Roxy) to address that issue.

"I will take her in the bank with me, and while I'm standing in line I'll say 'Get my back,' and she will go right behind me, face the other direction and watch everybody behind me."

Wiedewitsch brings Roxy home with her, faking nightmares at night, as well as the beginnings of a panic attack.

"I'll maybe start fidgeting with my hands, and as soon as she tunes into that, I'll invite her up," said Wiedewitsch, as she commanded Roxy to 'Get Close' -- sparking an instant reaction from the dog to jump up on her and lick.

"Now if I were a person having a panic attack, Roxy would keep going deeper and deeper -- forcing me to interact with her."

Wiedewitsch says there isn't a particular breed that they look for, but trainability and disposition.

"We match the dog's personality with the owners, and then begin training for their specific needs," said Wiedewitsch, who says these dogs can also be trained for people other than vets who suffer traumatic events.

"There is one woman --who is interested in one of these dogs -- who was sexually assaulted during a thunderstorm," explained Wiedewitsch, "So during thunderstorms, when she's thrown back into a panic, she would need a dog that would provide gentle reassurance, not a dog that would crawl on top of her."

Wiedewitsch says their plan is to follow up with the owners and their therapists in order to find out if or how the dogs are serving as effective treatment.

Wiedewitsch says prescriptions from a therapist are needed to attain a psychiatric assistance dog, but since the program is still in its infancy, she is unsure of how it will be funded.

It typically takes anywhere from $25,000 to $35,000 to train a service dog, but Wiedewitsch says they'll be able to do it for much less.

"We're working with the VA and local veterans service groups who have already donated some money to get the program started."

To find out more on these dogs or to be a foster home for one of them during training, call Lucky Dog at 218-847-4100.