Mia & John
For the first time in years I am starting to feel normal again. I am doing things with so much more confidence. Some days are still challenging but she makes those days much more bearable.
Mia is a 2 1/2 year old Dutch Shepherd mix that belongs to handler, John Dugas, and she helps him in more ways than just being a best friend and companion. John is a retired Warrant Officer (WO) from the Canadian Armed Forces in 2008 after 22 years of service as a Combat Engineer/ Combat Diver. Upon his release he transferred to the Primary Reserve Force and did another 8 years. He released from the Reserve Force in October (2015) as a Master Warrant Officer (MWO). During his service he did four tours in Yugoslavia (92/93,94,00,03), and also participated in three Domestic Operations (Disasters), Red River Floods, Quebec Ice Storms and Swiss Air Crash. As a diver, he also worked on several recovery operations supporting local police agencies over the years.
“While serving, I was officially diagnosed with PTSD in 2006, after several incidents of aggressive behaviour and insubordination. I underwent treatment once a week for two years and stopped after I released, as I felt I was better. In my civilian life, I am very fortunate that I am able to hold a steady job while having PTSD. I, like so many others, have to bring home the bacon. The bills have to get paid. Over the years, living with PTSD, while keeping it a secret from so many people, was very difficult. My ability to keep it together during the day, both at work and at home took its toll on me. While at home I became a recluse and preferred to be alone. I would not socialize with my family and spent my evenings in my garage. While at work I became the same way. I would stay in my in my cubicle and make no attempt to socialize unless I absolutely had to. Attempts to be open and socialize in the past were easy for me but became more and more difficult. I found myself forcing myself to socialize to appear normal. I had what I will simply refer to as, incidents, several of them, that made me realize I needed to get help again. In the past when I used to veer off the path (mentally) I was able to get myself back on track. As I got older this became more difficult and I did not want to burden my family with this. As the dad and husband I felt compelled to maintain the strong demeanor. I was now having an extremely difficult time at home and at work. I was having memory problems, extreme difficulty focusing and staying on task. This often led to a sense of frustration and angry outbursts. My ability to maintain a normal demeanor in my everyday life was starting to wear me down psychologically and physically. Sleep would not come in the evenings. I stopped dreaming all together which I thought was a blessing. However, I was still dreaming but my brain was no longer letting me remember them. I would still wake up in a terror and have to towel off so I knew under the surface things were not better. Medication helped but made waking extremely difficult. Throughout the day I was on auto-pilot. On the surface I was a successful person but in reality I struggled so hard each day.
I was like a duck. On the surface I may have appeared to be calm and social but underneath the surface my feet were going a thousand miles an hour. It was so exhausting maintaining this mask of behaviour. I would have to pull over on the way home from work and sleep for 15-20 minutes before I went home and started all over again. This led to simply becoming a recluse from my family and friends so I wouldn’t have to wear this fake mask.
I could not do large crowds anymore, which made any type of shopping, going to the gym, attending board meetings at work, very challenging. I was always very mentally drained after doing these things due to my heightened sense of hyper arousal. If I was triggered and did not have the option to leave the area I would become very irritated, negative and angry which always resulted in a negative experience. So…..I would try to avoid large crowded places if possible. Unfortunately this was not a realistic option for me in my current employment or at times, my family life. As things worsened, my ability to focus at work during large group meetings was becoming more difficult and causing me issues.
PTSD can be described as falling into a hole and trying to get out. I have learned over the years there are no two holes that are the same. Since 1994 I had been in a hole so many times but always managed to dig my way out. From 2012 to 2015 I was in a very, very deep hole and just seemed to be digging it deeper. In the fall of 2015, after two friends with PTSD committed suicide I finally hit rock bottom (emotionally). I thought if I didn’t do something I would venture down that same path. In the fall of 2015 I sought help and started seeing a Psychologist again. The day I made that choice to start talking again, my hole stopped getting deeper. My path to recovery slowly began.
It was suggested to me that a Service Dog could possibly help. After doing some research I was intrigued and a bit hesitant. The minute you tied that dog around your waist everyone would know something was wrong with you. This was difficult for me as I had spent so many years hiding it. A friend at work told me it would be liberating and it was. No more secrets…. just get busy living.
I entered the Courageous Companions program and found a shared understanding with the Group in Edmonton. I started attending the groups training sessions (without a dog) as I felt so comfortable being around people who had the same struggles as myself. No one judged, no one asked and no one questioned your disability. They simply took me in and provided an ear, no matter what time of the day or evening. Eventually I was paired with K9 Mia who was the angel that helped lift me out of the hole.
I will never the forget the day I received Mia. I was sitting at home with head in my hands trying to figure how I was going to get through the year. The phone literally rang at that moment and I was told that a dog had come available. The current handler had discovered he was was allergic to dogs so he surrendered her back into the program. She was trained by MSAR (Matt and George) and had been with her new handler for just under a year. We were paired together and underwent a monitored bonding period. I trained with the Edmonton group and after three months the bond was undeniable between us. Mia is an extremely alert dog. She is forever scanning and watching which has really helped me with my hyper vigilance. George once told me he thinks she was a sentry in her previous life.. She is a very confident reserved dog that always has my six. She provides space expansion for me when we go into stores by blocking from the front and covering from the back which allows me to feel more secure in crowds and stores.
Depending on my level of anxiety she provides three levels of grounding (this what I call them). Light grounding is when she sits on my feet, medium is when she leans against me, deep grounding is when she jumps on me with her front paws and leans on me. When I do get triggered she will emit a high pitch whine and sit in front of me to get my attention. This took awhile to figure out but it has helped a lot with my SRT “Self Regulation Therapy”. When she indicates with high pitch whine I stop and take note of what I am doing. It normally is an indication from her I need to stop thinking what I’m thinking or talking about. If we are in a store and I become highly activated she will start pulling on her leash (disruptive behavior) to make me focus my attention on her. One time I was in location with an extremely large crowd and I became highly activated. When this happened she just beared down (like a sled dog) and dragged me outside into the open (and the pouring rain). She then kept jumping on me to get me to take a knee so I could hug her. She then leaned hard against me and would not stop until I calmed down. After this particular incident I realized we were truly bonded.
The thing I find so unique is Mia can sense when I am about to be activated before I even know it’s going to happen. When we were only together for four months and still bonding I was in the shower and she started whining and scratching on the shower door. I opened the door to see what she wanted and she came into the shower and sat on my feet. Ignorantly I shooed her out as I didn’t want her all wet walking through the house. A few minutes later I had a trigger (flashback) and then I realized what she was doing. Working that first year together is full of moments like this until you learn how to read and trust each other. I was told the hardest thing with PTSD would be learning to trust my dog. During my training period with her I made it a point to do one thing a day I didn’t like doing. Today I trust my life to my dog.
As I said above Mia is a very reserved dog and is does not give open affection unless it is warranted. This makes her affection extremely genuine. She can read my mood extremely well and simply comes and sit on my feet or places her head in my lap when I’m feeling down.
In conclusion, Mia is my angel. For the first time in years I am starting to feel normal again. I am doing things with so much more confidence. Some days are still challenging but she makes those days much more bearable.” – John