LEVITTOWN, Pa. — On a sunny afternoon, Maj. Todd Olsen stood in Falls Township Community Park, facing away from the sidewalk, when a man on a skateboard approached. Olsen did not notice him, but his friend did.
Hager, Olsen’s service dog and constant companion, eyed the skateboarder as he rattled past and, determining that the incomer posed no threat, wagged his tail.
These alerts are just one of the many services Hager provides to Olsen, an Army veteran who lives in Falls with his 9- and 12-year-old sons. Olsen, 44, served one tour with Operation Iraqi Freedom and three tours with Operation Enduring Freedom. He returned with a variety of combat injuries. For years, he has struggled with sleep, memory loss, hypervigilance and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Then, in 2014, he learned about an organization called K9s for Warriors, a non-profit that pairs trained service dogs with veterans suffering from PTSD. It is the nation’s largest provider of service dogs for American veterans. The organization pairs 192 dogs and veterans each year at its headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
Olsen applied and was accepted into the program. On Aug. 29, he concluded a three-week training in Florida, where he underwent 120 hours of intensive instruction. Over that time, Olsen and the other veterans stayed in the company living quarters.
The organization’s goal is to reduce veteran suicides, a tragic epidemic in the U.S. with 20 vets taking their own lives every day, according to a 2014 study released in July by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The same study also found the risk of suicide is 21 percent greater for veterans than civilians.
By providing veterans with trained service dogs, organizers believe the effort can help them cope with the trauma of war and allow them to reenter civilian life.
“Our program has been so successful, with documented recovery from the debilitating horrors of war,” said Shari Duval, who founded K9s for Warriors after her son was diagnosed with PTSD.
“Most of the veterans we see have tried everything to manage their PTSD,” spokesperson Samantha Epstein wrote in an email. “Many are over-medicated and cannot go out in crowds. Many are struggling with suicidal thoughts, and we are their last resort.”
The average veteran is on 10 to 15 medications when they enter the program and 92 percent see those medications reduced or eliminated afterward, according to organization statistics. And 73 percent report improved health after receiving their dog.
The organization gets 95 percent of its dogs from high-kill shelters, according to its website.
The dogs, who must be at least 50 pounds and 2 feet tall at the shoulder and have no aggressive tendencies, are heavily trained before they meet their veteran partners. They must pass three stages, according to Epstein. At first, the dogs are taught basic obedience commands and social manners. They then learn how to perform tasks, like fetching items. The third, and most advanced training stage exposes the dogs to public, high-stress situations and more rigorous obedience commands.
“Essentially, the dog is saved, then the dog saves the veteran,” Epstein wrote in a press release.
Olsen enlisted in the Army in 1989 at age 17. He served one tour in Operation Iraqi Freedom and three tours in Operation Enduring Freedom. He worked as a member of the military police, and in civil affairs, providing humanitarian aid, organizing infrastructure development like schools and collaborating with local leaders. He declined to detail his injuries, saying only that he suffered skull injuries in addition to his PTSD.
Olsen struggled upon returning from his final tour in 2010. He went through a divorce and began treatment at the Philadelphia VA. Sunlight gives him headaches, and he wears dark sunglasses most of the time.
“I came back and I knew I wasn’t the same,” he said.
He also began going to a veterans-only yoga class in Bristol, which helped, he said. But he knew he needed more support.
Olsen was one of eight veterans matched with a dog in August. The group did not meet the dogs for the first 36 hours of training. Unbeknownst to them, they were being observed by staff members so as to pair them with the appropriate dog.
Todd Olsen puts a seatbelt on his service dog Hager as they leave Falls Township Community Park on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016. Olsen, who suffers from PTSD after numerous tours in the Middle East, was connected with his dog through the organization K9s for Warriors.
“I don’t know how they did it,” Olsen said, “but there were eight of us, and they matched us perfectly.”
He described the training as “exhausting” and “intense.” Every day, the group went to parks and professional dog trainers taught the veterans how to handle their dogs.
“It’s not so much training the dog, it’s training the veteran and then pairing them up together,” Olsen said. “So we weren’t teaching them basic obedience, we were learning the commands and the dogs were learning how we give the commands.”
In the afternoons, Olsen and the others would practice with their service dogs in public: malls, restaurants, coffee shops, zoos and stores. Olsen said that restaurants and stores have been largely accommodating, both in Florida and Pennsylvania. He recounted that a Falls Starbucks barista made Hager a “doggy cappuccino” — a cup of whipped cream with a bone on top.
Hager, a white and tan lab mix with a smattering of freckles across his nose, is about a year-and-a-half old. He is specially trained to serve someone suffering from PTSD.
The dog offers constant feedback on Olsen’s surroundings, keeping him safe and preventing surprises that might trigger PTSD. Consider the instance with the skateboarder. That’s called “cover.” Hager faces away from Olsen and alerts him if someone approaches. If there is no threat, Hager will wag his tail. If he senses danger or something unusual, he will step on Olsen’s foot and lean against his leg. Either way, the veteran knows someone is coming.
There’s also “block,” when Hager positions himself between Olsen and someone approaching from the front, and “brace,” when the dog serves as a support to help a disabled veteran stand — Olsen has injured knees.
And Hager offers equally important emotional support. Olsen has recurring sleep problems stemming from his PTSD and his combat experience. He says he has not had a good night of sleep since he came home from his last tour.
“(Hager) actually wakes me up from my nightmares,” Olsen said. “He’ll start licking me and licking my face, and get on top of me and he’ll lay on top of me and wake me up. I rub his belly, I thank him, we play around a little bit and I go back to sleep.”
The dog also helps Olsen remember his daily routine. One day, he said, he forgot about his yoga for veterans class, and the dog jerked toward the car, tugging on the leash until Olsen recalled the appointment.
And most importantly, perhaps, the dog helps Olsen reintegrate into what he calls “civilian life.” Hager makes him feel less isolated, Olsen said, and comforts him in tense situations like crowds or rush hour traffic.
“With the yoga for veterans and the dog, and continuing treatment at the VA, it’s putting me back together,” he said.
Information from: Bucks County Courier Times, http://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com