Service dog Raphael was only 8 weeks old the day the English Cream Golden Retriever “picked” his forever person: U.S. Air Force Veteran Bernard. But from the moment the pair began their relationship bond training at Colorado-based Hero’s Puppy for Life, their connection has been otherworldly.
Before meeting service dog Raphael, daily life was a struggle for Bernard. PTSD was plaguing the veteran with constant panic and anxiety attacks, causing him to become very withdrawn and depressed. Even though Bernard was on medication, a seemingly simple task like sitting in a room with his adult children for 30 minutes was something he couldn’t tolerate. In fact, Bernard’s PTSD symptoms would get so bad in these situations that he would have to excuse himself to go into another room and wrap himself in a blanket to quell some of the anxiety.
Fortunately for Bernard, his service dog Raphael has proved to be an expert hugger. In fact, Raphael’s ability to perform a “standing hug” — a unique version of compression therapy — is one of the most calming and helpful skills in his service dog arsenal. If Bernard starts to have an anxiety or panic attack, the Golden Retriever is able to sense the early signs and will immediately “stand up” on his hind legs and put his paws on Bernard’s shoulders — interrupting the veteran’s anxiety and cueing Bernard to then kneel in front of Raphael and hug. This hugging happens for a couple of minutes and works to place Bernard’s focus on Raphael instead of the trigger that was causing Bernard’s anxiety.
The Hero’s Puppy for Life training program is somewhat unique in that they have the veteran and psychiatric service dog go through all phases of the “No Harm, No Fear” training together — which allows the service dog to quickly learn what behaviors are normal and abnormal for their veteran handlers. In the case of Raphael, this training is how he learned to quickly recognize when Bernard was beginning to show symptoms of distress and know when to initiate skills like his standing hug. In fact, by the time Raphael was just four months old, he was already able to detect when Bernard was beginning to experience stress in his sleep and could wake the veteran up before it escalated into a full-on night terror.
Alerting to mental and emotional stressors aren’t the only problems Raphael can detect. Just a few months into their pairing, the English Cream Golden Retriever was able to alert Bernard to a problem in his throat a whole five months before the veteran was officially diagnosed with a cancerous tumor. Thanks in part to early detection, Bernard has been cancer free since 2019.
In addition to helping with Bernard’s PTSD-associated issues such as panic attacks, withdrawal, and depression, Raphael’s ability to create a protective buffer around Bernard in public spaces has also enabled the veteran to reenter society. Bernard is now able to go to the grocery story, attend church, fish, travel, and even snow ski knowing that his service dog is looking out for him. Bernard has also been free of PTSD medications for three years now, thanks to Raphael.
Because of Raphael, “I can now connect with my kids, socialize at length, and fly in an airplane,” says Bernard. “I can never forget those lost in combat, especially those I knew. But with Rafe always with me, I am brought back to the present reality very quickly.”