While post-traumatic stress disorder has been treated with medication and various forms of therapy, sometimes treatment can come in the form of a four-legged companion.

Service animals, as defined by the American with Disabilities Act, are “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” 

Cibolo resident Olga Lora is diagnosed with PTSD and is a client of the Dog Training Elite in New Braunfels. She said she and her husband, who’s also diagnosed with PTSD, had tried other treatments prior to getting service dogs.

 “I didn’t want to do medicine,” Lora said. “I had tried it years ago and it just left me numb.”

That numb feeling went so far that she could not cry at significant moments in life. 

“I didn’t want to live like that,” Lora said.

She and her husband each started off with a therapist. But she said once the dogs came into play, it brought a whole calm throughout the whole house. 

“I think just their energy around us makes a huge difference,” Lora said.

Whitley Cheatham, owner and lead trainer for Dog Training Elite in New Braunfels, said it’s important for a person to find a program that works with the client’s dog individually, or that can pair the client with a dog and provide a high level of training.

“This isn’t just a pet, this is a dog who’s trained to be a wheelchair, essentially, and that can be in the public without being seen,” Cheatham said. “They should be able to lay on the floor without being a nuisance.”

Cheatham, also, is diagnosed with PTSD. Before she became a dog trainer, she worked as a paramedic.  

“It can be a very traumatic job,” she said. “That’s something that wasn’t really spoken about until the past probably five years, (when it was) acknowledged that our first responders do have PTSD because they’re being exposed to people’s worst day. I’ve been told it’s our job to fix it but not being able to know what happened, that lack of closure indefinitely kind of leads to those PTSD symptoms.”

And then there is the repeated trauma — day in and day out.

First responders like paramedics and firefighters see trauma daily within their occupation. According to a 2016 national survey on mental health services for EMS workers, multiple studies indicate that healthcare workers are exposed to high levels of occupational stress, which contributes to higher levels of substance abuse, depression and anxiety. 

“Most people don’t realize that I have a service dog until we get up to leave an establishment, and they’re like, ‘Oh there was a dog there,’” she said. “And that’s the standard that the service dogs should be trained to.”

Service dogs are covered and regulated by the ADA, as well as state and local services. However, Cheatham said each state also has its own laws, and the ADA doesn’t cover service dogs and training. Instead, it only applies to a fully trained service dog

“So, the way that it’s written is whoever provides the most rights wins,” she said. “So, if Texas provides more rights than the ADA, if you’re in Texas, Texas wins, and so that’s just the way that the laws kind of work out.”

While people may question if a service dog is legit, a certification is not required. Additionally, businesses are not allowed to question or make someone with a service dog leave.

However, there are exceptions to the rule. If an untrained dog is running around, defecating at the place of business, or is aggressive with other people in public, the business owner has a right to ask the person and their dog to leave.

“Your rights (as a business owner) protect you to not have your business disturbed,” Cheatham said. “So, if you’re in a restaurant and the dogs trying to steal food, you’re within your rights to ask them to leave. If you’re in a store and it’s barking nonstop, you’re allowed to ask them to leave.”

Veterans Affairs will pay for veterans diagnosed with PTSD to get a service dog, and the cost for one and its training can be up to $20,000.

However, there are requirements veterans must follow in order for the VA to pay.

Veterans must receive dogs from an Assistance Dogs International accredited service dog organization. 

Furthermore, the VA is contracted with an insurance policy that will handle the dog’s veterinary care and equipment, as needed — if a veteran wants to get over-the-counter medication, grooming or treats for the dog, the VA will not cover it. Vaccines, check-ups, and prescribed medication are covered. 

Cheatham’s Dog Training Elite is not covered by the VA, only because it is not accredited by ADI.

Compared to other dog training facilities, the cost of training a service dog at DTE is $3,500. Moreover, DTE will train the owner’s dog, instead of issuing one. The reason for training the owner’s dog, Cheatham said, is a bond already exists. That said, DTE does evaluate the dog to ensure the dog is a good fit to be a service dog.

“(We check to make sure) that it’s not aggressive, that it’s not severely nervous, that it’s the appropriate age, the appropriate temperament, and then, provided those things check out, we provide training to the client, one-on-one, with their dog,” Cheatham said.

The DTE does work with the Malinois Foundation, a nonprofit that provides Malinois dogs to their clients.

As for how the dogs are trained, Cheatham said it is based on the client’s needs.

“If that client is someone who has emotional outbursts, we will try and find something that the dog can cue on to give him a heads up,” she said. “If their PTSD manifests more as anxiety, we can train the dog to cue them, ‘Hey you’re really anxious. I’ve got you.’”

Some of their military clients do not like people walking up behind them. Thus, they will train the dogs to stand behind them and give them a little buffer so they’re not surprised. 

“It gives them the perception somebody has got their back, but it also gives the public the perception that, ‘Hey, that dog’s watching me, I shouldn’t just go grab that guy.’”

For more information about the Dog Training Elite in New Braunfels, visit dogtrainingelite.com/new-braunfels

To learn about the ADA on service animals, visit www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.pdf.

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