Michael Wedge and his wife Debra first walked into the Brunswick Midcoast Humane Society in 2014, hoping to find a dog who could accompany him as he faced life challenges as a U.S. Navy veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder.
As he walked by cages containing available animals, he came across Little Sis, a 6-month-old Rhodesian Ridgeback mix who was 16 pounds and frail because her “brothers picked on her for food,” Wedge said.
Humane Society staff took Wedge and Little Sis into their office to meet, where “we fell in love,” he said.
Two years later, in August 2016, Little Sis and Wedge graduated from Maine Paws For Veterans’ 16-week training program to prepare dogs to help their owners navigate stressful situations as veterans with psychiatric service-connected injuries like PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. Little Sis’ canine cohort included Gypsy, Bella and Xena, a black German Shepherd.
Wedge and Little Sis are among 140 human-canine teams that have been through the organization’s training since its founding in 2012, equipping veterans to live their lives that have become more complicated from injuries connected to their service.
“Now I take her everywhere,” Wedge said of Little Sis.
He retired from the Navy in 1993 after 21 years of service as a machinist stationed all over the U.S. and Europe.
Little Sis is even trained to recognize when Wedge has nightmares about his time as a Cold War veteran by putting her paws on his shoulders when he’s asleep and waking him up.
“She’ll lick me with her Mick Jagger tongue and gently mouth my hand or my wrist and say, ‘Hey, wake up Daddy, you’re having bad dreams and I’m here to protect you,’” Wedge said.
About one in 10 Mainers are military veterans, according to state data. Almost 53,000 veterans are enrolled for care within the Maine Veterans Affairs health care system, said spokesperson Jonathan Barczyk.
Joy Johnson, a retired Harpswell social worker, started Maine Paws For Veterans — then known as Embrace A Vet — in 2012 after reading a statistic that said 22 veterans die every day from suicide, according to its website.
Johnson, who died in 2016, founded the organization to offer alternative therapies to Maine veterans with traumatic injuries, later including the psychiatric service dog training program that Little Sis and Wedge underwent.
Maine Paws For Veterans, which is based in Brunswick, also offers a retreat for veterans and their spouses, which the Wedges attended, as well as a support group for families and caregivers. The organization is funded by donations.
PTSD can elicit nightmares, flashbacks, and anxiety in crowds or from loud noises, making everyday situations, such as grocery shopping or eating in crowded restaurants, stressful.
Maine Paws For Veterans trains dogs to help their owners traverse such scenarios, said Tracy Shaw, the organization’s executive director. Veterans can either train their pets as service animals or can apply to train with a dog from an outside shelter or breeder. Dogs must be at least a year old to participate in the program.
The program is now 26 weeks long, and includes monthly refresher training classes, Shaw said. Veterans must be in therapy, have a service-connected injury and pass a mental health and background screening to be accepted, she said.
Trainers and attendees, both human and canine, meet weekly as the dogs receive basic and specialized training to become certified psychiatric service animals. During the program, the dogs and their owners go on field trips to stores like Home Depot to see how they navigate public spaces together and test the animals’ obedience skills and public manners.
Trainers worked with 10 dog-and-veteran teams in 2020, according to financial records.
The canine companions learn how to “cover” their owners by physically putting themselves between strangers and their human companions to act as a buffer if the veteran is adverse to unfamiliar faces.
The dogs also learn how to recognize when their owners are experiencing emotional difficulties such as a flashback and apply deep pressure therapy, a technique where the service animal lies on its owner’s chest or lap.
“The veteran can then hug or pet them, kind of like a weighted blanket,” Shaw said, which has a calming effect.