The Healing Power of Animals for Troops with PTSD

Jennifer Norris and Onyx
Jennifer Norris and Onyx, Virginia

My first journey in true healing was when I got my service dog, Onyx. She broke through this warrior and opened up a new area of life: love & trust. The love and trust was reciprocal in every way. As she showed me that I could trust her to have my back, my allegiance to her grew. The moment I met her I felt a piece of my heart begin to soften. I know that I naturally love others but I couldn’t necessarily feel it until I met Onyx. I couldn’t help love this amazing dog who was dedicated to protecting me and serving as a true battle buddy.

I didn’t give a whole lot while I was in warrior mode because those skills are reserved specifically for the military. Some of them can be useful in our every day lives but a lot of them had to go if I wanted to meld back into society. I was trained to protect myself, protect our assets, and protect others. It’s hard to drop that mantra when we basically got trained and programmed to fight wars for a living. The troops rarely talk about what we actually do every day because unless you are in the thick of it, it is hard to comprehend, regardless of what your specific job was in the military.

What most people don’t realize is that the transition back to being civilian takes time and takes effort on the part of the troop. Just like we had to work hard to make it through basic training or on an overseas deployment, we have to work hard to break out of the warrior mode. Basic training alone will create a warrior, one that is dedicated to serving their country until they can no longer stand. Serving years in the military with a goal of retirement in the end is what makes us feel so weary. Every year that we serve, every rank that we achieve comes with greater responsibility. The fight or flight stance helps make us better troops because we are always prepared for the unimaginable. We become the people we are because we are dedicated to the mission.

I had grown comfortable with warrior mode and I was able to get things done! But, I also did so at the expense of my body. In the military, we are expected to put mission before self. I didn’t know there was any other way after serving dutifully for fourteen years. Every job I had, every position I held, I did so with 110% commitment and rose through the ranks because I was so motivated. We are rewarded for putting mission before self. When in fact, we should be rewarded for juggling all aspects of our lives to include how we take care of ourselves. All I needed to be an even better troop was for someone to let me know what the standards were. I could live with clear standards because it gave me boundaries and goals to attain.

I often call being stuck in military mode, pinging. We used to call the ate up troops who were all about the military in every aspect of their lives pingers. I was even accused of being ate up myself. My nickname in basic training was G.I. Jen. I was in fact ate up because I loved that I always had goals to attain. It kept me in a position where I was constantly having to better myself in order to remain one of the top notch troops who did get to the top positions in the military. I chose not to have a family so that these decisions did not impact a child. I knew that I was military for life. When I lost that identity, I didn’t know what to think or what to do with myself. It’s as if all of it was just erased from existence.

After getting Onyx, it started bringing some normalcy to my life. Her mere existence gave me routine again. Every day Onyx needs the same things from me. She needs to eat, go outside, play, walk, and spend time with me. We learned some really healthy routines at K9s for Warriors that I was able to carry into my regular life. We learned how to use the dog while we were out in the community whether it be going to the grocery store or having dinner with friends. The three weeks I spent there helped me create these new routines. I now had an awesome dog that not only was here to protect me but that depended on me for her survival. The love that she unleashed in me has grown tenfold over the time that I have owned her and it will only get better. Her love for me is what opened up my heart to her and to others. After experiencing the simple love of a dog dedicated to helping you make your life better, it opened my heart up to new people and new opportunities as well.

I have met some pretty incredible people in this journey. My new mission is to take care of myself. I was so overwhelmed at one point with my PTSD that I wasn’t sure what was even going on. I didn’t know how to describe it. I didn’t know why after years that I was still struggling with the same symptoms.  It’s as if I was frozen in time from the time that I experienced the original trauma until I actually retired from the military. I may have been a troop who was dedicated to the mission, but I was doing so at the expense of my body, my emotions, and my personal life. Military mode works great while serving but not so well in the civilian world, unless we can temper our experience with an understanding that things are not the same. We carry our military mode to every aspect of our lives including our personal lives. It’s hard not to.

It was nice to receive a service dog from folks who understood how the dog would help me overcome the paralyzing fears and anxiety. My dog has helped me take the steps I needed to move forward in healing. Just like it took a long time to train me to be a leader in the military, it will also take awhile to pull me out of the warfighter mission. Onyx began the emotional release piece that comes with being with an animal who loves you unconditionally. She made my heart feel again. As a result of our mutual relationship, I felt that I could trust her to protect me when I needed it. And she proved to me that she could which made the trust go even deeper. Dogs run with packs and they are instinctively protective. Once the bond is established, it only continues to grow. The better she takes care of me, the more I want to do for her. I think about her well-being in the same way that she does mine.

As these defenses broke down and I learned to trust again, I reached out to more people. We need people, we need socialization with other people. Although I could totally be content keeping myself occupied for the rest of my life, I know that we cannot avoid social contact without it having some kind of negative impact on us. Onyx lowered my guard enough to start engaging with others as opposed to wondering if they were the enemy or not. Onyx has helped me to reprogram my mind from one always alert to danger to one that seeks out opportunities to connect with others. Once you start connecting with people, life becomes that much richer. We need each other to make things better. We need each other to help us through this maze we call life. We are not alone.

You may not be ready for interacting with society right now but I bet you could handle interacting with a service dog or some other animal dedicated to your wellness. These are all steps to freedom, a freedom that cannot be described until you experience it. PTSD does not have to define us. We can take ownership of the PTSD once we understand how it works, find things that do work for us as individuals, and build on each step to help us overcome the worst of it. My biggest hurdle has been learning to trust again. Learning to trust that Onyx will perform when I need her has helped me to drop my defenses and begin to trust others as well. We shouldn’t rob ourselves of the opportunity to connect with others when connecting with others is what ultimately makes your life flourish.

2 thoughts on “The Healing Power of Animals for Troops with PTSD

  1. I’m 55. Retired. Rescue swimmer/ Rescue Diver/Body recovery. Yesterday I had a melt down. . Still feeling down a little today. But, my Lab was by my side the whole time letting me now and its gonna be ok.
    We can work thru this together as a team.

  2. I have PTSD and am interested in a therapy dog. I currently have a golden retreiver, 2 yes old. I do love her but she is not trained. I also have diabetes 2 that could be helpful to have a dog also trained to help me remember to take insulin. At times I’m low and don’t know it but many more times I’m high in blood sugar. I dissociate and lose track of taking insulin. I’ve had a therapist since 2002 but am now without one and would like to try without one mainly cause it seemed to keep me stirred up and the 2 hour 15 minute round trip twice a week was just too much for me. I like staying home but know I need to plug back into society. I’m married to the same man for 36 yrs.. Although he’s a great guy he’s not much help with my condition and tries to pretend it doesn’t exist but it a chore each day to make it and the nights are sometimes unbearable. I’m doing good right now and just had surgery and had my right thyroid gland removed. I haven’t seen anyone except my husband when he comes home at night. I pretty isolated but do plan on getting back out in time. Not going to my therapist since mid March I have had a very hard time and can’t account for time after that till last Friday I got my bearings. I was suicidal and things were really bed for little over a month. Feel like I am improving tremendously. I was once very active and strong and have become a shell of a person. I just think I’ll make it… but man at times it’s soon hard.
    I think my love of dogs, especially golden retrievers, would make a therapy dog trained in ptsd, dissociation, and diabetes 2 would be a life saving thing for me.

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