September 22, 2021

It’s not OK to pet a wheelchair. And it’s not OK to pet a service dog.

Until Richard met his service dog, Carrie, he rarely ventured into a store alone.

He’d lived with symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder for years: Vivid nightmares. Anxiety. The inability to make simple decisions. Anger.  “If I felt like if someone didn’t trust me or was challenging my integrity,” he recalled, “I would blow up.”

Richard was among tens of thousands of Americans who enlisted in the military in the year following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Years after he left the service, one event in particular weighed heavily on him: He’d been guarding an old terminal when a small fishing vessel entered a restricted area. He was among those who sunk the ship. He wondered if he’d killed somebody. And if so, had they just been in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Counseling helped. But it was being paired with his service dog, Carrie, that changed his life. Barely 48 hours after meeting Carrie, she alerted Richard to one of his nightmares, laying herself over him until he woke. And by the time he returned home to Georgia after spending more than a week training with the Leashes of Valor canine team, he felt ready to go out. He didn’t need to buy anything. But walking into a store without his wife or family was a way to push himself now that Carrie was by his side.

As he headed down an aisle, he heard a mother explaining to her children that Carrie was a service dog. It was a hopeful thing–a teachable moment for kids who until then might not have known the difference between a working dog and a family pet. But Richard felt his heart fall when she continued, loud enough for him to hear, “I don’t know why. He doesn’t look injured to me, either.”

It is a brave and bold thing to return to the activities most of us take for granted after years of suffering, often in silence. And it is a brave and bold thing to do so with a service dog. Many Veterans have spent years trying to hide what sets them apart. A service dog is, in many ways, like a wheelchair. It is a medical assistive device. It is a four-legged prosthetic that gives a person the ability to function more like the rest of us. And a service dog, like a wheelchair or a missing limb, stands out. It draws attention to someone who would often prefer to remain invisible.

At Leashes of Valor, we do our best to prepare the Warriors who graduate from our program for this unavoidable and unwanted attention. As Veterans who have also relied on service dogs, we’ve experienced it ourselves: Passersby who talk to our dog or call our dog or offer it a handful of Cheetos. Children and grownups alike who ask to pet the dog. Or who pet the dog without permission.

Our Warriors have been photographed and live-streamed by strangers. They have been followed through stores and stalked down aisles and verbally accosted. They’ve been asked what the service dog is for. Seeing no outward signs of injury, they’ve been asked if they’re training the dog that belongs to them.

Not all wounds are visible. And that is particularly true for a generation of Americans who served during two decades of war, many who saw combat multiple times.

As many as one in five Iraq and Afghanistan war Veterans experience PTSD in any given year, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The pandemic, as well as the recent withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the subsequent Taliban takeover, have made symptoms worse for many struggling Veterans. Tragically, Veteran suicide continues to outpace the suicide rate among civilians; four times as many troops and Veterans have died by suicide than in combat.

PTSD treatment works. Service dogs work. They can reduce symptoms of PTSD by as much as 80%. More than 40% of Veterans with service dogs can cut back on their medications as a result. Richard is among them. With his service dog, Carrie, Richard has graduated out of counseling. Nightmares come less often. He’s down to a low dose of medication. He can go into a store and stand in a checkout line and attend his kids’ school events. While many interactions are positive, the negative ones sting. And they tend to linger.

 People are naturally curious, of course. And it’s fun to see a furry, four-legged creature in a sea of humans. But it’s important to remember that service dogs are performing a vital, medical role for their handlers. It’s not OK to interfere with someone’s wheelchair. And it’s not OK to interfere with someone’s service dog.

September is National Service Dog Appreciation Month, a time when we recognize the contributions of these remarkable animals. We’re also calling on everyone to learn more about how service dogs are helping heal the invisible wounds of war for a growing number of Veterans. That starts by knowing what to do when you see one–which is to not respond at all.

Richard said it best when he described Carrie’s impact on his life: “Carrie didn’t make me better. But because of her existence, I can be better.”

It’s up to all of us to give him and so many others the space to do it.