To many people a therapeutic pet is nothing more than an animal with a fancy name. They give them little thought and at times complain that the service dog is allowed in offices, stores and other public area that common dogs are not. To some of these same folks, those with post traumatic stress are weak, or were weak to begin with. I doubt anything I could say will change the view of some of those folks, but to those with post traumatic stress or other conditions, a therapeutic pet, be it a dog, cat or other animal, is more than a pet, it is a life line that helps us function, helps us cope, helps us be.
How I got my post traumatic stress is immaterial and though it has impacted parts of my life, I can do more with it than most folks can do without it. It does not own me, nor will it ever, though it does affect me and my ability to have close relationships or to socialize. It has also impacted professional positions in that though I am known in some circles, I have passed on many opportunities due to travel, the need to be in the public eye or other public centered job requirements.
I have shed a tear or two when I have lost a loved one though I am not known for tears in general. When I had a mishap a few years ago with an outdated chain saw, I cut my way out of the brush, got on my tractor and drove to the barn to access the situation. When I realized that the cuts (5 or 6 or so) had missed anything vital, I grabbed some paper towels and my “farmer’s friend” which is the largest bottle of rubbing alcohol I could find and poured it on the wounds and used the towels to help scrub away any contaminants. I later debrided the wound as needed and rested the leg for a bit. There was not a tear to be found. When Helen, my therapeutic dog who had been at my side since she was adopted, who had given so much love to countless clients over the 5 or so years we had with her died in my arms late December 21st, early 22nd, I could not see for the tears. Her loss cut more deeply than any chainsaw ever could.
That’s the thing that some folks will never understand. Many folks who live with post traumatic stress are far from weak. Most of us remain fully functional and other than some “quirks” such as lack of sleep, refusing to have our backs exposed (prefer to have a wall behind us), isolative behaviors at times, few close ties or emotional connections, as well as some others (not everyone has these of course as this effects everyone in its own way). These animals however have a way of breaking through the pain and walls of defense in a way that few if any others could. They become much more than a pet, much more than a friend or family member, in a real sense they become an extension of us. In some ways they are more than we are, in that often times we will do more to keep them safe than we will do for ourselves.
Helen was a staple in my office with all but a very few wanting her in the session with them. She seemed to always know who was hurting the deepest and would go to them, no matter how many others were in the room. She seemed to help break through walls and speed up recovery. It was common to have folks that had failed in other settings come in and though they at first refused to speak, when they held her, the long since silenced words began to take flight. So many would tell me that they had no idea that they could say those words to anyone but with her in the room it just seemed natural. Though I have been a successful therapist for decades, I feel she brought out the best in every session.
When someone with post traumatic stress (I will not add disorder as I am one of a large group of professionals that do not believe it is a disorder and instead is a natural reaction to an unnatural trauma or traumas) loses their therapeutic animal it can be the shattering of the security that they had built since attaching to the animal. It can be a devastation that can lead to hospitalization, self harm or worse. It can feel like a part of themselves has died as well. They may feel lost and afloat in a void that they are unsure they could or would want to return from.
In my case, I was blessed in that I received an outpouring of love and support for my loss and the community processed their loss with me as well. They validated my pain and shared theirs as well. This group speak though painful was positive and validated what we all were experiencing. Together we worked through the trauma, which varied in degree from person to person. We healed. Within hours there were tributes to our fallen team member. Pictures were shared of them with her. Mementos and a memorial stone were donated. Stories were shared. Mourning was normalized and closure could begin.
Not all that were effected have post traumatic stress. Many are otherwise ok, but all felt a connection to our therapeutic dog including tradesmen and friends that only knew her on the most cursory level. That what these animals have in common; the ability to connect with all in a very meaningful way.
Should you know someone that has lost a therapeutic/ service animal, be you a therapist or friend, keep this in mind and do what you can to help them process grief and find closure. Encourage them to speak, share your stories with them but also give them space when needed. Help them focus on the life that the animal had and not on their final moments. Do encourage them to find another support when they are ready and let them know that there is no wrong time to begin.
As for me and mine, we decided that our community and our family needed to pay tribute to Helen and have begun looking for another. She cannot replace what we have lost but she can give her own unique flavor to our lives. In that vein, we have decided that our next therapeutic animal will also have been born deaf and overcome hardship. She will be a survivor as was Helen. She will be a survivor just as we all are. With this small act, we will pay forward what we have received. At times, it feels that only those with deep scars can give us the deep understanding that those with post traumatic stress need the most. Sometimes scars, both physical and emotional are symbols that show the world that we may have gone through hell but we are still here and have much more to offer.
______________________________________________________________________"Doc Warren" Corson III is a counselor and the clinical & executive director of Community Counseling of Central CT Inc. and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (www.docwarren.org).