In early December 2015, U.S. Army Veteran Harold was homeless and struggling to make it through daily life. Abandoned by his family and battling severe depression along with a variety of other mental health challenges, Harold was certain he wanted to end his life by Christmas.
Fortunately for Harold, in mid-December a woman came to the homeless shelter where he was staying and convinced him to volunteer at her new organization, Tails of Valor, that was training service dogs for veterans. Though Harold’s volunteer work began as a two-hour commitment just to remain at the shelter, before he knew it, it was April of 2016. Harold was now at the organization five full days a week helping to train service dogs for fellow veterans and hoping to one day get his own four-legged hero.
Harold’s own service dog, Phelan, came to him unexpectedly only a few months later. Phelan, a Labrador Retriever, Great Dane, and Mastiff mix, was originally assigned to go to another veteran in the program. But when Phelan couldn’t perform the necessary skills for that veteran, the organization considered removing Phelan from the program. That’s when Harold stepped in. “I knew it must have just been a bad match, because there was nothing wrong with Phelan,” says Harold, who had been helping to train Phelan over the previous two months. “I said ‘watch,’ and I took Heather [the director of the organization] through all the skills that Phelan had learned in the program and Phelan did them all — perfectly.” After seeing what an incredible match the Veteran was for Phelan (and Phelan was for him), Heather suggested that Harold take Phelan home that night. And from then on, Harold had a PTSD service dog of his own.
That first night Phelan spent with Harold, the service dog woke the Veteran up out of a night terror. “It was the first time I realized just how bad my nightmares were,” says Harold. Now Harold doesn’t have as many bad nights because whenever the Veteran is having a night terror, Phelan will climb on him, lay on his chest, and even whine in his ear to wake him out of it before it escalates.
Another PTSD symptom that Harold has struggled with is explosive anger. But with Phelan, Harold is able to better manage this symptom as well. “In general, Phelan is always looking around and letting me know if there is anyone I am not seeing, which helps me not to react in a negative way,” says Harold. And if Phelan senses that Harold’s anxiety or anger is climbing, the service dog will lean into Harold’s leg and start walking sideways to physically push the Veteran away from whatever or whoever is making him anxious.
“These are issues that used to keep me from even leaving my house,” says Harold. “But Phelan has made an amazing difference in the way I feel. Because of Phelan, I can now be around others without fear that I may react in a negative way.”
Since Phelan has come into his life, Harold reports he no longer has thoughts about suicide. Additionally, the five weekly therapy sessions Harold once needed have now been reduced to about one session every three to six months.
“Phelan has made such a difference in my life,” says Harold. “He is why I am able to do things again. This dog has so much to give and is always surprising me with what he knows about me. Because of Phelan, I not only have the courage to live my life, I also have the courage to help my fellow veterans learn how to live again, too.”