By Brianne Ledda and Jacob Alvear
There are two periods in Stacy Pearsall’s life: the time before Charlie, and the time after.
The South Carolina native joined the military when she was 17, and retired after three tours. But even after she left combat, her body and mind were still a war zone. She struggles with PTSD and seizures, and she’s hard of hearing from blast exposure. That’s where Charlie, her service dog, came in.
“He gives me the freedom to be normal again,” she said.
The Smithtown-based organization where Pearsall was paired with Charlie, America’s VetDogs, is one of two Long Island nonprofits that work to provide veterans with service dogs. It partnered with a cruise-planning company last week – between Saturday, March 2 and Saturday, March 9 – to raise funds for its ongoing mission to raise and train dogs for veterans.
“Me personally, I think having a service dog is awesome,” Nick Clark, a veteran who served three tours in Afghanistan, said. Clark, who suffers from PTSD and anxiety but doesn’t have a service dog, said that he’d be open to applying for one if his landlord allowed pets and his backyard was big enough.
Human-dog interactions release oxytocin, Oskar Pineño, an associate professor of psychology at Hofstra University who specializes in animal conditioning and human learning, said. Also known as the “love hormone,” oxytocin releases stress and promotes growth and healing – something that could be beneficial for veterans.
“It’s almost like getting high on love,” Pineño said.
A June 2018 study from the U.S. National Library of Medicine found that service dogs can help veterans who struggle with PTSD by alerting and creating boundaries, disrupting nightmares and improving sleep quality and duration. It also found that the dogs helped veterans improve emotional connections with others, increase their community participation and physical activity and reduce suicidal thoughts and medication use.
Differences in veterans paired with their service dogs are sometimes noticeable in as little as a few days, Olivia Poff, a guide dog mobility instructor at America’s VetDogs, said.
“Once they receive their dog and they start to realize all the benefits of having this 24/7 partner that is game for anything and that is there to have their back, it’s just like having a battle buddy all over again,” Poff said. “They oftentimes, right before our eyes, before they’ve even left class, show a completely different side of their personality, where now they’re starting to talk, or they’re starting to raise their hands and ask questions during our classes, or they are going to crack a joke, or smile a little bit easier.”
Poff said that the bond between handlers and their dogs isn’t always instantaneous, however. Sometimes it can take a few months for dog and owner to click.
“But it is magical, no matter when it happens, and I would say it’s my favorite part of the job, getting to hear about all the adventures they go on to do and everything that they go on to accomplish together,” she said.