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For veterans with PTSD, service dogs are a game changer

Nicole Lanahan of Got Your Six, left, helped train service dog Arkum for his life with Navy veteran Andy Canning.
Emily Woodbury
St. Louis Public Radio
Nicole Lanahan of Got Your Six, left, helped train service dog Arkum for his life with Navy veteran Andy Canning.

Andy Canning was a wreck. The Navy veteran, who lives in Centralia, Illinois, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder so debilitating that he often only got just a few hours of sleep every night.

“I took a hard look at myself in the mirror and realized that I was an angry, tired person that felt more comfortable sitting at home and not going and doing anything,” he explained on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air.

His wife wasn’t content to let that stand. “We had to have a long talk about how things need to get better,” Canning admitted.

Andy Canning and his service dog, Arkum.
Got Your Six
Andy Canning and his service dog, Arkum.

Lately, things have gotten better. And that’s thanks to Arkum, Canning’s service dog.

Arkum was trained by Got Your Six Support Dogs in Maryville, Illinois. Nicole Lanahan, the organization’s executive director, said Arkum is specially trained to help interrupt and manage Canning’s PTSD.

“They can smell adrenaline,” she explained. “We also train them to notice generic things like foot tapping, hand-wringing” and other behaviors that may be unique to an individual. Each dog gets 350 hours of training on everything from good behavior in crowds to ferreting out such stressed behavior.

And when they notice it, they’re trained to interrupt it. By getting their human’s attention, a trained service dog “pulls us out of ourselves,” Lanahan said. “And we're going: ‘Oh, we're getting anxious. Now I can do these other things that I've learned to do in my other therapy, like maybe I'm gonna do box breathing, or listen to a song I like.’

“And it's so much easier to take that direction from a dog,” she added. “When a dog says, ‘Hey, you're getting nervous, relax!’ as opposed to a spouse saying, ‘Hey, calm down.’ Because when a spouse says it, you're like: ‘Get out of here. I'm done. Yeah, no, don't tell me to calm down.’ But when a dog says ‘calm down,’ you're like: ‘Oh, yeah, cool. Thanks, dog.’”

Listen to the St. Louis on the Air conversation

Studieshave shown that service dogs, coupled with therapy, can make a big difference. There’s only one problem: Far more people need service dogs than organizations like Lanahan’s can support.

Lanahan said she’s hoping to double Got Your Six capacity, from 10 dogs each year to 20. But that takes money.

She’s hopeful it’s on its way. In August, Congress gave its approval to the PAWS Act, which would provide federal funding for programs like Got Your Six Support Dogs. And in the meantime, Purina is raising money for the work through its Dog Chow program.

Canning is proof of the difference a good boy or girl can make. “It's made my life a lot better,” Canning said. “The confidence to go out in public, to get my sense of purpose back and grow and know that if you put in the work, this is going to be a great pair and you're going to be so much better moving forward than just sitting stagnant and not taking a chance on yourself.”

He said he’s grateful that his wife gave him the push he needed. “It's 100% worth the effort to go through the training and put yourself out there to get help, to reach out for help,” Canning said.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.