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More than a helper: Service dogs are lifelines for Cheyenne residents with PTSD, other medical conditions

Specially trained dogs know how to perform tasks that uplift the lives of their handlers, allowing them to go about day-to-day routines they otherwise would have difficulty following.

Natasha Chilton lies on the ground as part of a mobility exercise with her service dog Bashir on March 16 outside Accomplice Beer Company in Cheyenne. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Natasha Chilton glanced down at her Goldendoodle, Ford. Chilton stacked her hands across her waist, scratching one hand subtly as though she had a nervous tic. She continued pressing her eyes at Ford, who stared aloof at her, confused about what his owner was doing. Then it clicked. The curly-haired canine pressed his nose into Chilton’s hands and waist, telling her to cease scratching.

What Ford did was called a “self-harm interruption.” It’s one of the many tasks Ford learned during his years as a service dog prior to his retirement three years ago. Chilton received Ford when he was a puppy to help her cope with her anxiety and depression. The Goldendoodle has saved her life, she says.

To many service animal handlers in Cheyenne and across the nation, a dog is not just a fluffy companion. These canine partners perform tasks that allow people to go about day-to-day routines they otherwise may have difficulty following.

Goldendoodle Ford sniffs Natasha Chilton’s hands during a “self-harm interruption” demonstration March 16 outside Accomplice Beer Company in Cheyenne. Ford is a retired service dog who specialized in assisting Chilton with her anxiety and depression. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)
Natasha Chilton’s pets — Ford, right, and rough collie Bashir — lie on the ground March 16 outside Accomplice Beer Company in Cheyenne. Bashir is Chilton’s current service animal and helps her with anxiety and mobility. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

Although dogs in vests seem to be accompanying owners inside restaurants and public businesses more than ever before, the term “service animal” didn’t exist until the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. These animals are specially trained to perform invaluable services for handlers that mitigate deficiencies, according to the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Examples of impediments or medical issues that service dogs assist with include allergies, autoimmune conditions, mobility challenges, diabetes, seizures or psychiatric conditions such as depression or PTSD.

Service dogs make a substantial difference in the lives of individuals suffering from PTSD who have an allergy or mobility challenge. This is according to Lola Carter, a Cheyenne resident who specializes in training service animals for these conditions. 

“I have had people who have had trauma related to coming home after dark,” Carter told Cap City News. Some of her clients have been attacked near their homes or have been involved in intrusions. “And being able to open the door and send the dog in to turn the kitchen light on, it means a difference between having a panic attack” and feeling secure, she said.

Dog trainer and Cheyenne resident Lola Carter discusses various tasks service animals learn March 16 outside Accomplice Beer Company in Cheyenne. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

Originally from rural Oklahoma, Carter has been connected to dogs all of her life. She has been training dogs for 23 years and service animals specifically for the past 16. Carter is also the board president of Mission: Service Dog, a nonprofit organization that aims to train service animals above and beyond the standards of the Americans for Disabilities Act. She has made it her mission to educate animal owners, as well as businesses, about service animal rights.

Carter’s efforts culminated in a public service animal demonstration March 16. She and several Cheyenne service dog handlers, including Chilton, met at Accomplice Beer Co. to perform a variety of service animal tasks and explain how those maneuvers benefit owners emotionally and physically.

Psychiatric service dogs

Carter owns several pooches, one of which is Beasley, who assists her husband, Stephen Carter, with his PTSD. Animals like Beasley are trained to help alleviate anxiety from their owners and recognize when someone may be having anxiety or a panic attack. For instance, the pet can pick up on when someone is breathing heavily, tapping their feet or clenching their fists. As Carter explained, the pet will catch onto nervous behavior and de-escalate any negative emotions brewing within their handler.

Jake Thornton attended the March 16 demonstration with his service pet, an 8-year-old Australian Cattle Dog named Payton. Thornton and Payton, who is also a PTSD animal, demonstrated a strategy called a “grounding exercise.” The dog will press themself up against a person’s chest, which gives them something to focus on.

“It brings you back to the here and now,” Carter said.

A grounding exercise is often a tactic dogs will do when their owner is sitting or at home. However, service dogs know other ways to make their handler less anxious, especially in public settings. One such tactic is a maneuver called “circling.” For this task, the canine will literally walk in a circle around their human, which signals to other people to keep their distance. The dog may do this when their owner is standing in a line or in a crowded setting.

Jake Thornton and his PTSD animal, Payton, demonstrate a “grounding exercise” for an audience March 16 outside Accomplice Beer Company in Cheyenne. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)
The 8-year-old Australian Cattle Dog Payton stands for a photo March 16 outside Accomplice Beer Company in Cheyenne. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

Medical responsibilities

Mobility dogs are especially important companions for individuals who suffer from a physical condition that makes it difficult for them to move on their own. This statement holds true for Chilton, the owner of the Goldendoodle Ford. Chilton has had service dogs for six years. She had to retire Ford because he began to foster a fear of other dogs after being attacked numerous times in public.

Chilton’s current service animal is a rough collie named Bashir. He assists her with her mobility and knows how to monitor her heart rate. For instance, if Chilton drops Bashir’s leash or an item from her purse, the collie is trained to up and hand the object to her so she won’t have to bend over. To Chilton, this help is invaluable because she suffers from vertigo, which is a condition characterized by sudden dizziness as if one’s head is spinning. This task is also important to handlers in wheelchairs.

Cheyenne resident Tina Klahn’s golden retriever, Doc, is currently training to be a mobility dog. She has had him for a month. Klahn decided to get a service dog to help her in day-to-day life because she has loved dogs her entire life. She cites the movie “Love Leads the Way,” which is about a blind man who fights to remove barriers to seeing-eye dogs, as an inspiration to her.

“It really helps you appreciate where we are with service dogs,” Klahn said.

Another technique mobility dogs are taught is “forward momentum,” where they walk ahead of their owner, tugging on the leash and keeping their human on the move. The animal may execute this task if they sense a person is unstable or may fall over. Klahn also suffers from vertigo and hopes Doc can provide her a sense of stability when walking in public.

Just as Chilton’s pup Ford has saved her from life-and-death scenarios, other dogs are trained to be guardrails for a myriad of health complications. Other conditions include diabetes and allergies.

Daryl-Ann Ahrens is a board member with Mission SD. Her 2-year-old golden retriever, Kobe, has been with Ahrens since he was 16 weeks old. While she is sleeping, Ahrens’s blood sugar can drop to below-average levels. Over the years, she has attempted to use blood-sugar devices to alert her in these scenarios, but they never worked well, Ahrens told Cap City News. This is where Kobe comes in. He has been trained to detect when Ahrens’s blood sugar drops and wake her. The retriever discerns blood-sugar drops based on Ahrens’s pheromones and through her breath, Carter said. Kobe’s senses are so attuned to Ahrens’s blood sugar that he will wake from the dead of sleep to alert her.

“You get to have a little furry friend all the time,” Ahrens said.

The 2-year-old golden retriever Kobe, who is trained to detect low blood sugar levels, smiles for a photo March 16 outside Accomplice Beer Company in Cheyenne. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)
Kobe the golden retriever locates and carries a tub of glucose tabs as part of a service animal demonstration March 16 outside Accomplice Beer Company in Cheyenne. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

Charming is an allergy detection animal who smells out gluten for his handler, Zahra Keith. The smooth collie can also discern when Keith’s heart rate rises if she experiences an allergy-related side effect.

Other medical service pets know how to assist in different scenarios, such as reminding an owner to take their pills. Lucy Kitley, a trainer that works with Carter, is teaching the golden retriever Georgia to become an allergy service animal. One task Georgia is practicing is medication reminders. As Carter explained, many service dog handlers take multiple medications throughout the day and may set several phone alarms as reminders. However, people may be busy doing and ignore the alarm. That’s where Georgia’s job comes in.

“She is doing what we call ‘cell phone alerts,’” Carter said. “So a cell alert is when the alarm clock goes off on our cell phone, and the dogs start harassing them. And so we teach them to be obnoxious on purpose.”

The golden retriever Georgia jumps on her trainer, Lucy Kitley, as part of a medicine reminder presentation March 16 outside Accomplice Beer Company in Cheyenne. Georgia is being trained to sniff out peanuts as a service animal. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

Training a service dog

The various assignments service dogs learn take a substantial amount of work between dog and trainer over the period of many weeks.

According to Carter, service dogs can begin training as young as eight weeks old and begin learning more advanced tasks once they reach five months old. She also works with a variety of breeds that excel in certain tasks.

Several pooches present at the March demonstration were golden retrievers. This is no coincidence. As Carter explained, retrievers are one of the “Fab Four” breeds most likely to succeed as a service dog. The others are labradors, standard poodles and collies. 

The golden retriever Beasley flips on a light switch, which service animals do to alleviate anxiety for people with PTSD, as part of a training demonstration March 16 outside Accomplice Beer Company in Cheyenne. (Jared Gendron/Cap City News)

Before training begins, Carter assesses a dog’s aptitude to determine whether they would be a good service dog. She looks for qualities such as comfortability being in a public setting, hyperactivity and compliance. Some breeds, like the retrievers, typically possess temperaments more suited for service dog tasks. For instance, Aussies and German Shepherds are usually emotional animals that struggle to maintain composure in high-stress situations, Carter said.

“Hounds are also independent workers and tend to need a good reason to do what they are being asked,” Carter told Cap City News via message. “For example, my Ibizan hounds are described” as being similar to cats in nature, “and if you’ve ever tried to train a cat, you’ll understand why they don’t typically excel in service dog work. It’s not that any of those breeds are bad dogs. They just have characteristics that are great for the jobs they were originally bred for, but can become problematic for someone trying to use them on a daily basis as a service dog.”

Guardian dogs may also present challenges if they become service dogs. If a medical crisis arose for a person and first-responders arrived to treat them, a guardian pet would perceive the EMTs as a threat. The dog would then become an obstacle to both their handler and outside helpers.

Overall, Carter works diligently to match an animal-in-training with their owner.

“If we have a handler that has PTSD, those kinds of disabilities come with a wide range of symptoms,” Carter said. As a trainer, she can teach a dog any skill that targets an owner’s needs. “There’s a series of tests that we put the dog through. … We want to look to make sure that, you know, it’s a good fit for each other, but then also [that] the dog has the drive to do what we want the dog to do.”