Service dogs helping vets cope with PTSD

SAN ANTONIO – Post-traumatic stress disorder is a debilitating condition suffered by many who served in the nation's military.

Local veteran Ed Baldasari said he's suffered from PTSD since returning from Vietnam nearly 50 years ago.

"It's hard. People just don't understand, " he said. "When I came back from Vietnam, I had no idea what was wrong. I was moody. I was drinking. I was withdrawn."

Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety; and can lead to suicide.

A 2010 Department of Veterans Affairs report showed there are an average of 22 veteran suicides per day.

Baldasari said he's tried committing suicide twice but now has a four-legged best friend named T.C,, an Australian shepherd mix that helps him through dark times.

"I swear, if it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be sitting here. She's a lifesaver," he said.

T.C. came to Baldasari as a pet but was later trained as a service dog with the help of a nonprofit organization called Train a Dog, Save a Warrior.

Warriors go through a 15-20 week training program with their dog.

The first phase focuses on skills needed to pass the AKC Canine Good Citizenship course.  The second phase includes socializing the team in dog-friendly places.

Some dogs come from shelters; others are pets that are trained to become service dogs.

The canine companions can come in all shapes and sizes.

Retired Sgt. 1st Class Henry Ximenez's service dog is a Chihuahua/dachshund mix named Kenzie.

Kenzie weighs just 5 pounds and is quite the pampered pet but she's vigilant when it comes to Ximenez.

"She knows when something's bothering me because she will not leave my side," he said.

Ximenez credits Kenzie with pulling him out of depression and getting him out of the house again.

"I didn't have motivation to do anything or go anywhere. I was just at home and depressed," he said. "She means the world to me."

Scientific research has shown that petting an animal releases a happiness hormone called oxytocin.

However, that's only part of the reason service dogs are proving to be effective in helping those suffering PTSD.

According to Bart Sherwood, program director of Train A Dog, Save A Warrior, dogs can sense when their owners are having a difficult time.

"The dog can pick up on the smells, the triggers that cause the emotions," he said. "The dog alerts them to when they've been triggered. That way, they can start petting the dog."

While Baldasari admits he still has tough moments, he said he can lead a mostly normal life with T.C. by his side.

"I can go to movies, I can go into the store. I don't have to worry about feeling like something is going to come out after me," he said.

It's a simple bond between man and dog that's helping to heal invisible wounds.

The Train A Dog, Save A Warrior program is based in San Antonio but provides help to veterans all over. More information is available here.