Canine Companions Help Veterans Cope with Trauma
Stiggy's Dogs pairs up service dogs with veterans to help them overcome anxiety, panic attacks and nightmares
Terran Frye and his chocolate lab-beagle mix, Hershey.
The words tumble out, slowly but deliberately, as Terran Frye gamely talks about his two stints in Iraq as a Marine Corps truck driver — in particular, the most wrenching part of his service: when he was part of the first wave of troops that were sent into Nasiriyah, where the fighting was fierce and the carnage indescribable.
“I seen a lot of combat and dead bodies, basically,” he says. “Moving them and carrying them. When you shoot people, it’s not just ‘leave ’em there.’ We had to move them and also take care of our injured. The human body’s not made to carry that much weight every day. I kinda messed up my back.”
Messed up his mind, too.
A towering 6-foot-5 and some 275 well-proportioned pounds, Frye, 29, is 100 percent disabled with PTSD — so haunted by all he’d witnessed that, at one point, not so long ago, he spent much of his time thinking up different ways to kill himself.
“Self-medicating was the first one,” he says matter-of-factly. “Just chugging hard alcohol straight up; got pretty serious with that for a few weeks.”
Then he barricaded himself in his house, holding a knife to his chest at one point, while also contemplating hanging himself from the rafters or overdosing on Ambien. And then there was the time he got into his truck and started driving through the night toward North Carolina and Camp Lejeune, a major Marine base.
“I had this stupid stuff running through my mind,” he says softly. “I was gonna drive through the front gates, not stop, make them have to shoot me and kill me. Obviously, you can’t just drive through a gate like that. You gotta go through an ID check, and my idea was to blow right through that and go until they got me.”
A concerned friend convinced him to turn around and come back home, and soon after, Frye heard about a program that pairs up service dogs with veterans who rely on them to help overcome anxieties, panic attacks, nightmares, and any other issues that result from the trauma of war.
The dogs already have a common bond with the veterans, even before they’re trained: Castaways themselves, all are rescues from shelters, locally and nationwide.
“Our motto is ‘Rescuing One to Rescue Another,’” says Jennifer Petre, who launched Howell-based Stiggy’s Dogs in 2010 as a tribute to her dog-loving nephew, Benjamin Castiglione. A Navy medic, Castiglione (aka “Doc Stiggy”) was killed in Afghanistan by an IED in 2009.
Now, Frye’s constant companion, Hershey, a chocolate Lab-Beagle mix provided by Stiggy’s, nestles at his feet, whimpering and fidgeting, her way of being protective while seeming to intuitively sense her master’s anguish.
Jennifer Petre, founder of Stiggy's Dogs, with nephew Benjamin Castiglione - AKA "Doc Stiggy."
“She watches my back, you know?” says Frye, as he affectionately rubs Hershey’s head. “She helps me with my anxiety and depression and the nightmares. Do I think I’m ever going to be like what I was before? Not a chance; there’s just no way. Too much stuff’s happened and I’ve changed too much. I don’t think I’ll ever be that same person. But Hershey helps. She helps a lot.”
Petre operates her business out of her home, one dog and one veteran at a time.
“We’ve placed 16 dogs with veterans all over the country,” she says. Petre and her trainer, Donna Fournier, are working 24-7 to keep up with the demand, while grappling with the frustration of a waiting list that’s now pushing three years.
“I’d like to be tripling the number of dogs we can provide every year,” Petre says. “It’s a labor of love and, like any nonprofit, it’s a struggle. We need some funding to keep it growing, but it’s one mission at a time, and every day is a new day.”
It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that the same man behind the first Veterans Court in Michigan is also at the forefront of utilizing therapy dogs in his courtroom. Judge Brian MacKenzie initially reached out to the Novi-based Canine Advocacy Program to provide support to victims of child abuse.
“The therapy dog model was invented here,” MacKenzie says. “The dogs calm the kids. And I said we need dogs for the veterans, too.”
That led to the April 2010 introduction of a Doberman named Rylan to MacKenzie’s Veterans Court proceedings. Rylan is present for all sessions, in the waiting area before and in the courtroom itself, freely wandering around, mingling — literally seeking out any anxiety and instantly defusing it with a gentle nuzzle or a soft lick.
But a comforting Doberman?
Rylan’s trainer, Lisa Blanchard, realizes that people think that’s an oxymoron.
“Yeah, I know,” she says with a roll of her eyes. “The ears shooting up and all that. And honestly, if you were standing outside the fence in my back yard, you would probably not want to come in.”
But she says the Doberman is a very misunderstood breed.
“They’re very much family dogs,” she says. “They’re very kind and very sweet, and they’re very good therapy dogs.”
While acknowledging that Dobermans need a good deal of structure, Blanchard says that if raised the right way, they can be very good companions. “The guys have more of a connection with [Rylan] than, say, a poodle, because this breed was used in war in Guam and is part of the veteran history.”
In fact, Blanchard points out, as far as their ability to maintain vigilance and prevent ambushes in combat, the Dobermans’ record is impeccable. That role has evolved in the case of Rylan, whose sweet, soothing presence is infectious for everyone around her. The only thing she’s vigilant about is making sure everyone around her feels OK.
Veteran Holly Most is a big admirer.
“If you watch Rylan,” she says, “you’ll see she makes a point of going up to every single person at some point, throughout the hours that we’re in there. She lets everyone know she’s there, whether they need her or not, and I think it’s really great that she’s allowed to sit up in the jury box with us when we’re having our review. It’s cool.”