PORTLAND, Maine — Bob Laidlaw flew combat missions, delivering fuel to forward Army and Marine bases, in Vietnam between 1968 and 1972. Those missions still haunt his dreams. Sometimes, his nightmares make him thrash and throw punches in the darkness, endangering his sleeping wife. His night terrors have hounded him for 40 years.
But now, Laidlaw has found a friend who can help. Her name is Shadow, and she has a wet nose and a tail.
During his night terrors, Shadow, a black mutt, senses his struggle, and she puts her reassuring weight and paws on his chest, waking him.
“It’s a comfort to wake up, period,” said Laidlaw during a break from training Shadow at North Edge K-9 on Bishop Street, where she is in her 12th week of service dog training. “And to have her there, that’s a bonus. … When I get into my dreams, I’m like we’re talking right now, it’s real, and I can’t get out of them. So, she helps me get out of it.”
Laidlaw and Shadow, who was rescued from a high-kill shelter in the South, were paired as part of a program known as Paws for Peace. It provides veterans with a dog and 16 weeks of training at North Edge at no cost. The program is run by Embrace a Vet, an organization that provides direct support services to Maine veterans, and their families, suffering with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries.
Last year, 19 pairs of dogs and veterans went through the program successfully. Embrace a Vet hopes to graduate 20 more this year.
North Edge owner and head trainer Christian Stickney, who also is a dog handling officer with the Portland Police Department, and Deborah Farnham, president of Embrace a Vet, are convinced dogs make veterans’ lives better. They said clinical studies are underway to confirm what they’ve already seen: Some veterans are able to reduce the number and dosage of medications after training a service dog.
It’s slightly unusual for someone to train their own service dog, said Stickney. But the extra time the veterans spend with their dogs just enhances their bond and the effectiveness of the program.
“To see the transformation in their lives is profound,” he said. “Some of these veterans are really on the edge.”
In addition to learning basic obedience commands — as well as how to stay calm in crowded stores and streets — each dog in the program learns at least one specific task to help their person. Some, who are paired with physically disabled veterans, learn to turn the lights on and off or pick up dropped items.
Many dogs, such as Shadow, learn to break what Stickney calls “cycles of trauma.” They are taught to identify when veterans are struggling with their emotions and to step in with their essential dog skills — pawing, distracting and licking faces.
Just their presence can be therapeutic, Laidlaw said. He feels better with Shadow between him and the world, petting her head. Plus, she gets him off the couch to play, keeping him active.
After the 16-week course is through, veterans not only have a trained service dog, they also have the skills to keep teaching and bonding with their pooch. Stickney checks back in with the veterans three months later to see how they’re faring, offering advice and further training if there’s trouble.
“If there’s any other veterans that are out there, that are having the same problems that I’m having, I would suggest getting a dog and coming here to the training and go through the program,” said Laidlaw. “It doesn’t cure you, but it helps you.”