HEBRON — The men, wearing stoic expressions, led their dogs on leashes in a circle around the room, the teachers shouting out instructions.
The dogs reacted, to varying degrees of compliance.
"If she doesn't sit, tell her to sit, give her a chance," said one of the instructors, Sharon Sylvie. "Tell her, 'Good girl, good girl.'"
This training may have seemed routine, but it, and the dogs, have literally been lifesavers.
The men were all military veterans with either post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries. Once a week, Dunes Dog Training Club offers them free training, teaching their canines to be service animals. The dogs provide their owners with emotional support, protection and a sense of calm that many of them have lacked since seeing combat.
"We've had veterans who have come to us with PTSD so bad they didn't want to leave the house," said Jan Koutelas, an instructor with the Pets N Vets program. "It's sort of like having their own battle buddy who can come with them wherever they go. It gives them more confidence, more security."
For instance, she said, the program teaches the dogs to block their owners, standing in front of them when they're in a crowd. The dogs also learn so-called deep pressure therapy, laying on their owners to calm them down, regulating their breathing and heart rate.
Over the course of the past 16 years, millions of Americans have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Between 11 and 20 percent of them have PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Traumatic brain injuries were also more common than in previous wars, accounting for 22 percent of combat casualties in the two conflicts, the VA found.
So five years ago, the Dunes Dog Training Club decided to offer veterans with the conditions free training. Pets N Vets has since trained 55 dogs, certifying eight of them as service dogs, serving veterans from as far away as the south suburbs of Chicago, central Indiana and Ohio. The organization also provides the veterans with supplies: leashes, choke chains, cages.
"The bonding, it takes away from their PTSD. They're got to plan everything around the dog: You've got to fed it, take care of it," Sylvie said. "We had one guy with a Labrador. He was getting ready to kill himself. The dog came over and put his head in his lap and looked into his eyes. He said he couldn't do it."
"Dogs can sense your every feeling. If you're emotionally upset, if you're angry. They're so intelligent. People don't give them enough credit."
Animals provide companionship
Jason Cotton, a Marine Corps veteran from Crown Point, has trained his dogs, Hunter and Maggie, to alert him when his heart condition acts up. The dogs are on the lookout for the smell Cotton's body gives off when his heart slows. When it does, they poke him with their noses, waking him if he's sleeping.
"Now I don't have to wear medical equipment every day," said Cotton, 44.
Manuel Alvarado's 3-year-old golden retriever, Canelo, has helped with the effects of his PTDS from serving Vietnam.
"He distracts me from a lot of things," said Alvarado, 74, of Crown Point.
His family has noticed the difference.
"He talks a little bit more," said Alvarado's wife, Rachel. "He's had to express himself. He's more patient. That's his buddy."
Sadly, Canelo was recently diagnosed with carcinoma and given weeks to months to live.
Veteran can't imagine not having canine
Tom Sergent's dog, Delilah, keep him company. She has flown with him on trips to Hawaii, Las Vegas and Texas.
"If I'm not up by 8 in the morning, she gets me up," said Sergent, 54, of Cedar Lake. "She makes sure I'm not a couch potato."
The 3-year-old shepherd mix also helps relieve his anxiety. Veterans with PTSD are often always on guard, or hypervigilant, so dogs can help them recognize when there's an actual threat.
"If she's not upset, I know there's no reason to be upset," said Sergent, who is medically retired from the military, having served in the Army and Marine Corps. "If she's upset and wants to get out of an area, I know it's time to go."
He added: "I would have a hard time picturing life without her."
Dog senses seizures
Samarra the German shepherd/Belgian malinois mix may have saved his owner's life more than once. In 2008, Jeremiah Deyarmin, 41, of Crown Point, suffered a brain injury when a roadside bomb went off near his patrol in Iraq. He now has seizures, balance issues, migraine headaches, PTSD.
She has sensed he was going to have a seizure before he did three times.
Once, he was kneeling, and she pushed him onto his side and laid her head on him so to hold him in place while his body seized. On the other two occasions, she alerted his wife that something was wrong.
Samarra has also helped Deyarmin with his balance — he calls her his "135-pound cane" — and mental health.
"She definitely gets me out to where I can talk to people. I can go to the grocery store and not have so much anxiety," Deyarmin said at a recent Pets N Vets training, after swallowing a couple of anti-seizure pills. "It forces me to talk to people because everyone's always asking about her."
To be service dogs like Samarra, the canines learn to sit underneath tables and chairs without getting up, ride elevators and be comfortable around wheelchairs and crutches.
"It's the calming influence," Deyramin said. "Before I had her I couldn't go anywhere by myself. I never knew when I'd have a seizure. If I get overly stressed out, I'll pass out."
"She's changed his life, really," said Deyarmins' wife, Melissa.