Jonathan Ramsey gets nervous, even paranoid, in crowds. He used to go to Walmart at midnight just to avoid them.
The 26-year-old Wood River man attributes the problem to his U.S. Army service in war-torn Afghanistan in 2010-11. Danger and violence were everywhere.
“I’ve tried so many different medications and therapies, and nothing has helped,” said Jonathan, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Well, nothing except a chocolate Lab named Boomer. Jonathan is training him to be a service dog, similar to those used by blind people.
In crowds, Boomer circles Jonathan, prompting folks to give him a little extra space.
“I feel like I kind of have a barrier or a bubble,” Jonathan said. “He’s in it with me, and I feel like he’s there to protect me. It comforts me. It calms me down. He keeps me safe.”
On a recent Thursday night, Jonathan and Boomer were at Cindy’s Critter Camp in Maryville for a PTSD dog-training class.
Participants included veterans training their own dogs, as well as volunteers who house, feed and train donated dogs for a non-profit organization called Got Your Six Support Dogs.
“‘Got your six’ is military slang for ‘Got your back,’” said Executive Director Nicole Lanahan, 35, of Troy, a dog trainer and author.
PTSD dog services can range from waking up veterans during bad dreams to helping them relearn how to trust and give affection.
Nicole founded Got Your Six last fall after receiving multiple calls from veterans looking for PTSD service dogs. Some had found high prices and long waiting lists elsewhere. One even cried.
Today, Got Your Six is training eight dogs, mostly Labs and shepherds. They will be placed with veterans and first responders for free.
I have so much respect for our veterans, and I feel disgusted at the lack of services for them. They deserve more.
Heather Chapman on why she volunteers
“I have so much respect for our veterans, and I feel disgusted at the lack of services for them,” said board member Heather Chapman, 46, a teacher who lives in Glen Carbon. “They deserve more.”
PTSD is a mental illness that can develop after a person experiences or witnesses one or more traumatic events, ranging from warfare to sexual assault. Symptoms often include flashbacks, nightmares, stress, anxiety, depression and withdrawal.
“When (Jonathan) came back from the service, he was a completely different person,” said his wife, Candice, 24, a nursing student with three children. She gave Boomer to her husband as a gift.
Today, Jonathan is studying to become a special-education teacher, and Candice is fostering and training an Australian shepherd named Trigger.
Luke Reinhold, 47, of Troy, is another disabled veteran involved with Got Your Six. He was diagnosed with PTSD after serving in the Gulf War with his activated National Guard unit.
“Fourth of July is really bad because of the big booms,” said his wife, Connie, 49.
Luke is training Nita, a German shepherd, as his PTSD dog. His wife and daughter, McKenzie Counts, 17, are fostering and training a black Lab puppy named Hollywood.
Luke also is a Got Your Six board member. He promotes the organization by sharing his own success stories, including the time he had a flashback at Bass Pro Shop.
I was back in the desert. The smells, the sounds, even the sand in my mouth. I looked down and Nita had me pinned against a clothing rack. She held me in place until my wife and daughter showed up.
Luke Reinhold on dog’s help during a flashback
“I was back in the desert,” he said. “The smells, the sounds, even the sand in my mouth. I looked down and Nita had me pinned against a clothing rack. She held me in place until my wife and daughter showed up.”
PTSD service dogs are becoming more common in the United States. There are no national standards yet, but Nicole expects that to change soon.
Her weekly training sessions involve teaching dogs to follow basic obedience commands such as “Sit down,” “Stay” and “Come” and otherwise show good manners in public.
“Training times vary,” said Nicole, who is fostering a black Lab named Goose. “It’s usually six months to a year.”
At a recent session, dogs practiced lying or sitting quietly while trainers walked away. Nicole made noise with a squeaky ball and knocked around using a walker.
Boomer disobeyed and stood up several times, prompting Jonathan to scold him and spritz him with water and vinegar.
“The walker is a new thing,” he said. “They’ve never done that before. He wanted to come to me or see who was knocking, one or the other.”
All service dogs are required to wear identification vests in public. Patches read, “Don’t pet me. I’m working.”
Other volunteers at the Maryville session included Julia Walling, training a blue heeler named Merlin; and Dawn Guenther and Nicole Kirk, training black Labs named David and Slider.
Breeder Jerry Carver watched action from the sidelines with his granddaughter, Kendall Tune, 11. He held Maverick, a 4-week-old charcoal Lab he plans to donate.
“I don’t raise the dogs for a living,” said Jerry, 56, a retired ironworker who lives in Troy. “It’s a hobby. I do it with my wife and daughter and grandchildren. I just enjoy it.
“I’ve been wanting to do something like this for vets, and Luke just called me at the right time, and here I am.”
Veterans and first responders need a doctor’s referral to get a PTSD service dog from Got Your Six.
People can help the organization by volunteering or donating money or dogs. Several breeds are suitable, particularly Labs.
“The suicide rate is so high for returning veterans,” Heather said. “It’s just staggering. If canines can help them, then let’s fill the world with them.
“Something has to be done. We can’t have these men walking around like this and ignore it or throw medicine at it. We have to give it everything we’ve got.”
At a glance
- What: Got Your Six Support Dogs
- How to help: Volunteer or donate money or dogs
- Information: www.GotYourSixSupportDogs.com
- Contact: 618-979-0916 or 1099 F Beltline Road, No. 200, Collinsville, IL 62234