After serving 2 years in the U.S. Army in Kosovo, Russell Keyzer came home a changed man. Like hundreds of thousands of soldiers, he struggled to adjust, but as time went on, he got worse instead of better.
At first, waves of depression and survivor’s guilt overwhelmed him. Therapy helped, but when the symptoms became physical, his life started to fall apart.
“Once I overcame the emotions, I needed to overcome the physical effects,” Keyzer explains. “My blood pressure goes through the roof to the point where my heart is ready to explode. It’s horrifying.”
He has violent physical reactions to noise and crowds. “There were times that my body felt as if it were physically aggressive, even though psychologically I was not aggressive.” Keyzer compares it to having a seizure: “My anxiety goes through the roof. My muscles are flexing, and they don’t loosen. I get to a point when my body is physically so overwhelmed that I can’t move. I’m in a state of paralysis.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had hijacked his life.
He was in bad shape when he went to the Veterans Administration (VA) in Northport, New York. That day, he met another veteran — a man who had been suffering from PTSD too but was now doing much better.
The difference? Paws of War.
“We started talking, and he told me how much his service dog helped him. I thought maybe a dog would help me too,” Keyzer says.
What he didn’t realize in that moment was that his life was about to change.
The Dogs of Paws of War
Founded in 2014, Paws of War is dedicated to saving shelter dogs and then training them to become service dogs “to serve and provide independence to our U.S. military veterans that suffer from the emotional effects of war.”
The dogs they take in come exclusively from shelters and rescues, says co-founder Robert Misseri. “We do not buy or breed dogs,” he says. “There are so many wonderful dogs available looking for a second chance at life.” They do, occasionally, work with a dog a veteran already has if the dog can be trained for service.
There are certain criteria that Paws of War trainers use to decide if a pup is service-dog material:
- Health: While dogs may have to learn how to do different services depending on the situation, the dogs must first be healthy enough to work.
- Drive: One of the most important factors in choosing dogs is their drive, which is their desire to work or to do something. Three primary drives motivate service dogs: food, prey (toys) and affection (belonging to a pack). Dogs who will do anything for food, for example, or a ball as reward will make excellent service dogs.
- Sociability: The dogs should be comfortable around other animals, people and children while retaining the capability to focus on their person. They have a job to do. Dogs can’t do that job if they can’t resist running off after that squirrel, and they might actually put their people in danger. So, focus, comfort and affability are the best combination of qualities.
- Intelligence: A service dog must be able to learn new skills and retain what is learned. Intelligence in this case is measured by how fast a dog can learn and how efficient they are at remembering what they learned.
- Trainability: This is similar to intelligence, but to be trainable, the dog must also have drive. If the dog wants to learn, is excited to learn and has the drive to get their reward, then that dog is very trainable. If a dog lacks either intelligence or drive, the process is much more difficult.
- Origin and gender: These are relevant only when the veteran has preferences and/or has an existing dog in the household who will need to get along with the service dog.
Training Paws of War Dogs
“Our training process takes the veteran/dog pair through a variety of steps,” says Misseri.
It takes longer for some dogs to become service dogs than others, depending on how quickly each dog catches on. For some dogs, this process takes 6 months; for others, it can take up to 18 months.
Training starts with beginner classes that cover the essential obedience skills that all dogs need to know, including sit, stay, down, etc.
The next step is the intermediate training, which covers more advanced obedience skills and translates them into real-life situations. What this means will depend on the veteran’s needs, and these skills will be adjusted throughout their life together as needs change and evolve.
The final step is advanced training, when the dogs and their partners perfect their real-life skills and focus on individual, task-specific training. Once the dog goes home, regular training brush-up sessions are important.
“We very closely monitor progress for all veteran/dog pairs in our program,” says Misseri. “While there is testing done at the end of each level of training, we also pride ourselves on getting to know both the veterans and the dogs participating in the program. We know that they are ready when they have passed all training/testing and can fully demonstrate to us that they can handle real-life situations.”
The veterans are very involved in the training process, Misseri notes.
“Once a dog enters training, they immediately live with their handler, which allows them to bond and develop an understanding of each other’s behavior.” The veteran and their dog attend training classes and work through the program together. The dog learns the necessary skills, and the veteran learns to communicate their needs to the dog.
And continued training is important because needs can change.
A Dog Named Artemis
Russell Keyzer arrived at Paws of War at the same time the organization had taken in 3 litters of puppies. It was in the process of figuring out which puppies would train as service dogs and which would go up for adoption or into foster.
“One of the founders of Paws of War had a puppy in mind for me,” Keyzer recalls. “She just had a sixth sense that we were going to click well. She pulled out this little Belgian Malinois mix named Artemis, put her right down on the floor and the dog ran right up to me and sat in between my legs. She’s been glued to my hip ever since, quite literally.”
Of the many things Artemis does for Keyzer, her companionship has helped him the most. Keyzer lives alone, and he finds living with her gives him comfort. She also forces him to go out of the house and be more social with other people.
And then there are her specialized skills.
“I’ve been clean and sober for 5 years,” Keyzer says. “I’ve been going to 12-step groups for a while, and they get very crowded.”
He reached a point where the crowd was triggering him, and he couldn’t go to the meetings. “I was sitting outside in the hallway, trying to listen in. The dog allowed me to be engaged in those groups.”
Lights, noise and crowds are all triggers for Keyzer’s PTSD. Artemis will put her body between Keyzer and other people to create physical space. “She’ll know before I do that someone in close proximity will trigger my symptoms.”
She will sense his anxiety growing and give him a signal when it’s time to leave.
Keyzer is a recovery coach, and he gives regular presentations to different groups. “If I’m speaking somewhere, and I start getting too passionate about what I’m talking about, the anxiety goes up, the blood pressure goes up, and she’ll start mouthing my hand, which is her signal for me to breathe, to calm down.”
Keyzer has physical reactions to his symptoms. For example, he will leap to his feet as a physical response to anxiety. But his dog senses this is about to happen, and she climbs into his lap to anchor him.
“I’m just sitting there petting her, but she’s in my lap to keep me in one position. Yet it looks so natural to other people. Even though I know she’s doing it for a reason, to an untrained eye, it looks very natural. For me, personally, it lends a little bit of normality to it. It takes away the ‘disabled’ factor. It just looks like the dog is sitting on my lap, and I’m petting her. It’s adorable when you see it.”
Shortly after Keyzer began working with Artemis, his knee gave out. He had to use a cane. “Even though the dog originally wasn’t supposed to be for stability, we just adjusted,” he says.
They changed the vest she wears and trained her to walk a little farther out from Keyzer’s side to pull him onto his good knee and give him stability.
And while Keyzer doesn’t need that anymore, he found that when they’re climbing stairs, Artemis will actually pull him up. “It’s amazing what they can do,” Keyzer says. “It’s limitless.”
Having a service dog has done more for Russell Keyzer than he ever imagined.
“My PTSD is under control. I can go to the gym again, I can go to the grocery store. I think those are the biggest changes. That’s the real quality of life,” he says. “I can live a normal life for the most part.”