Friday, March 28, 2014
We’ve all seen the Labrador Retriever with the rigid harness handle, walking along guiding a blind person. A seeing-eye, guide or service dog.
We all know of K-9s who are trained to track, to identify drugs, bombs or cadavers.
But did you know there are dogs specifically for people with PTSD? Diabetes? Mobility problems? Hearing loss? Seizures? Medical issues? Autism?
These amazing creatures can answer the phone, unlock doors, call 911, alert to certain behaviors, push buttons, retrieve medications and enable movement.
Catherine Martin of Summerville knows…she has one.
Kurbee is five years old and a mix of Plott and Great Dane, “with, we think, a little bit of Chow thrown in…which gave him his black tongue,” laughs Martin.
Martin sits at her dining table on a bright sunny day. Kurbee sprawls on the floor next to Carmel, 7, a Beagle mix.
Kurbee is not wearing his vest, which means he can be approached, petted and talked to. He is thrilled to receive the attention.
A week earlier, at the dentist’s office, wearing his vest, Kurbee sprawled in front of Catherine ignoring other people except to ensure they didn’t get too close to his handler.
Catherine, 59, suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Kurbee is her service dog enabling her to venture out into the world and maintain a relatively normal life.
Although she has made some changes in her routines because of her PTSD – such as going grocery shopping first thing in the morning when the store is less crowded – her life, she says, is immeasurably better thanks to Kurbee.
“The dog gives you a sense of protection and freedom to be able to leave home and be in public.”
PTSD, she explains, is a traumatic stress where the brain is no longer able to cope. Each person has a different breaking point. “But when you’re there, it’s hell.”
Martin’s breaking point came, she explains, as a culmination of personal events that happened rapidly enough that she had no opportunity to recover from one before another happened. They all came together in one day.
“I had four major stressors all in one day,” says Martin.
Martin worked as a bank teller. A number of years ago there had been a series of bank robberies in West Ashley and James Island, and this was a stressor for all bank employees in the area. In her bank, that day, they were short-staffed.
There was a bank manager, two tellers and a personal banker. There were also undercover cops. (At a previous job, she says, she had seen someone shot in front of her so the entire situation — the cops and the crowd — brought it all back.)
The third stressor came that morning by way of a call from her mother telling her that her stepfather would not live through the evening. The final stressor was how busy they got while everyone was in a meeting. “We had 20 people in the lobby as the meeting broke up.”
Near where Martin was working was a new shipment of checkbooks complete with account numbers. Normally they would be immediately locked in a vault, however that morning her supervisor had told her to leave them until later.
As the meeting broke up, Martin says, with emotion creeping into her voice, instead of pitching in to help clear up the backup of customers, her supervisor proceeded to “chew her out” very loudly in front of all the customers.
“I thought I was being calm,” she says, “when I told her ‘nobody chews me out in front of customers.’”
Later the supervisor told her she felt physically threatened by Martin’s behavior. Martin says she went into the washroom to collect herself and when she came out she was called into the manager’s office and fired. On top of that, the undercover police questioned her, thinking she had seen a robber and that had caused her outburst.
“My stepfather died the next day.”
Kurbee gets up and goes to Martin and puts his head in her lap. She pauses, pats him, and tells him she’s okay. She takes a breath and continues her story, sounding calmer.
She says she saw her doctor the next day because she felt out of control.
“Ironically,” she says, “I had just returned to work to that position five months earlier after suffering from a life-threatening illness. The doctors did not know what it was, but they told me if I had not come in (on someone else’s cancelled appointment) I would not have made it three days [to her normally scheduled appointment].”
She credits Dr. Douglas Michaelsen, a hematologist and Dr. Jairy Hunter, then at Summerville Medical Center, with saving her life. “Without them I would not be here today.”
Following the day at the bank, she suffered from depression for the next three and a half years.
“It’s like the soldiers suffer,” she explains, “you walk around and don’t know how you are functioning…who you are.”
Eventually, her doctors found a medication that helped. “I was encouraged to make a connection with a dog by my therapist,” she says.
“I read ads in the paper, did research online…I needed to get a service dog already trained…I couldn’t afford to buy a dog and have it trained. I discovered they had service dogs for diabetics and many other different things, and that they had dogs for soldiers suffering from PTSD.”
She finally went to the SPCA in Summerville and there she found Kurbee.
“I made a connection with him. I brought him home and worked a little with him. My doctor put him as a service dog for emotional support.”
Martin says she went to a Pet Expo and found a PAALS – Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Service – booth there. “They were doing a demo on what service dogs did. It was about what PTSD dogs did. Kurbee had his ‘emotional’ patch on. I watched the demo and spoke with them. They gave me a list of things he needed to be able to do [to be certified a PTSD service dog]. They also told me that as long as his harness/vest was on he was working and people needed to stay away. Once the vest comes off, then he is just a dog and can interact with others.”
How it works
If someone invades her personal space, says Martin, Kurbee will quietly insert himself between the person and Martin, gently nudging the person back.
When in line, she says, Kurbee stands alongside facing backwards “watching her back.” He senses her emotional state and distracts her. If that doesn’t work, he acts up to distract her from the downward spiral.
If there is a situation she needs to be away from, he will pull her away.
She recalls an incident at the DMV. “I didn’t want to be there, too many people, but I needed something. I saw a young man who was very agitated. His wife was with him. Suddenly he got very loud and agitated (with the woman at the photo counter). I could see his panic. I don’t know where Kurbee and I got the courage…I think Kurbee gave it to me. I went up and told the [DMV] woman ‘Ask him one question and one question only…and you must wait for an answer.’
“His wife said ‘you understand exactly!’ I said to the young man, ‘My dog is for what is bothering you and me…we can go outside.’
“‘Yes,’ said the man, ‘I want out of here…I need to get out of here.’
“We went outside and Kurbee calmed him right down.”
Martin says she found out the man had come back from two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and it was hard for him to realize that people around him were not trying to kill him.”
Medical service dogs, she says, can bring a phone or dial 911 (via a special adaptor); bring a drink; smell the change in ketones and alert a diabetic and even bring the insulin syringe; sense and smell the chemical change a body goes through prior to a seizure and help the person get down on the floor [so they won’t fall]; turn on lights, pull wheelchairs, unlock and open doors for paraplegics to name a few things.
For Catherine Martin, Kurbee has turned her life around. “Kurbee is a godsend,” she says, “and I know He gave him to me.”