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Service Dog: How A Labradoodle Is Helping One Idaho Veteran Cope With PTSD

Samantha Wright
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Boise State Public Radio

Awescar is normally an obedient dog.

“It’s okay buddy, okay, I guess you’re going to sit up here. What is it?” asks Dan Sperry.

This 70 pound white labradoodle is supposed to sit on the floor until Dan says it’s okay to jump up into his lap.  But today Awescar won’t leave Dan alone.  “You’re a good boy! He definitely wants to come and lay down on your lap.”

Awescar is trained to notice when Dan is upset or nervous and provide comfort.  Dan is nervous today, but not as much as the last time we talked.  He’s more centered and able to sit still for longer periods.  That’s largely because of Awescar.  “I didn’t know how much my life was going to change.”

Dan is one of the more than 5 million adults that suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, or P.T.S.D., every year.  This Desert Storm veteran came home from the war with panic attacks, anxiety, and flashbacks. 

Before Awescar, Dan never left the house.  He couldn’t deal with crowds, and he was afraid he might hurt someone during a panic attack.  Now, that’s changing.  “I have no reservations about leaving the house or going into a store or something," says Dan. "I don’t lock myself in the house day after day after day anymore which is pretty nice, it’s nice to wake up and there he is, you know.”

I don’t lock myself in the house day after day after day anymore - Dan Sperry

Awescar was trained for several months at Companion Training, a facility in the Treasure Valley that provides service dogs for a variety of disabilities.  The cost of each dog varies depending on what it learns to do and can run into the thousands of dollars.  Through Companion Training, the Sperry’s did get some financial help to pay for their dog.

Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio
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Boise State Public Radio
Awescar is trained to stand solidly on all fours to act as a brace when Dan falls.

Awescar knows the basic like sit, stay and heel. “He also knows how to go to a drawer or a covered door and open it up and get a bottle of pills out and close the door and take it to Dan,” says Dan's wife Angie.

Awescar is also trained to prevent Dan from falling. He suffers from debilitating headaches. He can’t balance and he walks with a cane.  Angie says Awescar will stand still on all fours so Dan can use him as a brace.  “A few days after we got him we were walking him and practicing that command and Dan had a really bad headache where he needed him to do that and needed him to brace him and he just performed flawlessly,” Angie recalls.

And when Dan falls, Awescar is learning what to do. “We’re teaching him how to if Dan falls to immediately go find me or he can say 'go get Angie' and Awescar will search the house for me and find me.”

Awescar also helps Dan navigate crowds. He gets nervous when people are behind him, so Awescar follows to create a barrier. This came in handy when Dan and Angie went to the popular Basque Festival in downtown Boise.

“To see Dan so completely comfortable in an environment that would have been horrifically horrible for him before was amazing, and still is,” says Angie as Dan chimes in, “that’s not something that I would ever do, too many people, too many opportunities for something to go south, mind would race, wouldn’t have a good time, but I just walked through there, we weren’t there for very long, but I had a great time.  Haven’t gone out and done something like that in years.”

Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio
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Boise State Public Radio
Dan and Awescar play tug of war.

Awescar will continue to learn commands to adapt to Dan’s needs.  He can legally go wherever Dan goes.  And Awescar is all business when on the leash.  But at home, when he’s not on the job, Awescar and Dan roughhouse and play catch. “Bring it here, Awescar, bring it here.” 

Dan says Awescar gives him a reason to get up in the morning. “I can’t hardly remember life without him," Dan says. "You try to block the bad things in your life out or not focus on them and he really helps me do that, so I’ve taken that other part of my life and tried to put it away and start a new life with him.”

“C’mon buddy,” Dan says to Awescar.

Dan Sperry and Awescar have a new life and a new mission -  one that involves helping other military veterans with P.T.S.D. Our story continues tomorrowon Morning Edition, on KBSX 91.5 fm.

Hear part 1 of our Service Dog series here.

Hear part 3 of our Service Dog series here.

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio

 

As Senior Producer of our live daily talk show Idaho Matters, I’m able to indulge my love of storytelling and share all kinds of information (I was probably a Town Crier in a past life!). My career has allowed me to learn something new everyday and to share that knowledge with all my friends on the radio.

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