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Living with PTSD: 'I can’t hardly remember life without him'

Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a three-part series exploring the benefits of service dogs for combat veterans. Reporter Samantha Wright began working on this series three years ago. The first installment ran on Friday, and the last story will follow on Sunday.

A veteran of the Persian Gulf War, Dan Sperry came home with headaches, panic attacks, and flashbacks of the war.

He had trouble coping, but that changed when he received a service dog. These dogs are highly trained to be around-the-clock companions.

Awescar, the 70-pound cure

Meet Awescar, Sperry's service labradoodle.

The dog is supposed to sit on the floor until Sperry tells him it’s OK to jump up into his lap. But today, Awescar won’t leave Sperry; all he wants is to lay down on Sperry’s lap.

Awescar is trained to notice when Sperry is upset or nervous, and provide comfort. 

Sperry is nervous today, but not as much as the last time we talked. He’s more centered, and able to sit still for longer periods. The change is largely because of Awescar.

“I didn’t know how much my life was going to change,” Sperry said.

Sperry is one of the more than five million adults that suffer from PTSD every year. This Desert Storm veteran came home from the war with panic attacks, anxiety, and flashbacks. Before Awescar, Dan never left the house. He couldn’t deal with crowds, and he was afraid he might hurt someone during a panic attack. Now, that’s changing.

“I have no reservations about leaving the house, or going into a store or something, I don’t lock myself in the house day after day after day anymore, which is pretty nice. It’s nice to wake up, and there he is, you know.” 

Learning to depend on Awescar

Awescar was trained for several months at Companion Training, a facility in the Treasure Valley that provides service dogs for a variety of disabilities. The cost of each dog varies depending on what it learns to do, and could total thousands of dollars. Through Companion Training, Sperry and his wife received some financial help.

Awescar knows basic commands like sit, stay, heel.

“He also knows how to go to a drawer or a covered door, and open it up and get a bottle of pills out, and close the door, and take it to Dan,” said Sperry’s wife, Angie.

Awescar is also trained to prevent Dan from falling. Dan suffers from debilitating headaches. He can’t balance and walks with a cane. Angie says Awescar will stand still on all fours so Dan can use him as a brace.

“A few days after we got him, we were walking him and practicing that command. And Dan had a really bad headache where he needed him (Awescar) to do that, and needed him to brace him. And he (Awescar) just performed flawlessly.” 

And Awescar is learning how to respond when Dan falls.

“We’re teaching him how to if Dan falls to immediately go find me. Or he can say, ‘Go get Angie,’ and Awescar will search the house for me and find me,” Angie said.

'I can’t hardly remember life without him’

Awescar also helps Dan navigate through crowds. Dan gets nervous when people are behind him. So Awescar follows behind to create a barrier. This came in handy when Dan and Angie went to the popular Basque Festival in downtown Boise,

“And to see Dan so completely comfortable in an environment that would have been horrifically horrible for him before was amazing, and still is,” says Angie

“That’s not something that I would ever do—too many people, too many opportunities for something to go south, mind would race, wouldn’t have a good time,” added Dan. “ But I just walked through there. We weren’t there for very long, but I had a great time. (I) haven’t gone out and done something like that in years.” 

Awescar will continue to learn commands to adapt to Dan’s needs. He can legally go wherever Dan goes. And Awescar is all business when on a leash. But at home, when he’s not on the job, Awescar and Dan roughhouse and play catch.

Dan says Awescar gives him a reason to get up in the morning.

“I can’t hardly remember life without him,” he said. “You try to block the bad things in your life out, or not focus on them, and he really helps me do that. So I’ve taken that other part of my life and tried to put it away and start a new life with him.”