When veteran Mark Lawrence met eight-week-old Mya, a border collie–springer spaniel cross, she was scarcely bigger than a handful and barely able to stand properly. The little pup, the only one of the litter who had tufts of white hair on the ends of each foot, like she was wearing socks, pattered across the room on soft paws she hadn’t quite worked out how to use, rolled over a few times to show off, collapsed at Mark’s feet, and went to sleep.
And that was it for Mark: as far as he was concerned, he had to have this pup in his life. He came back for her four weeks later, when she was 12 weeks old and ready to leave her mama. She’d grown a little by then and she was ready to go home.
At first, Mark intended to keep Mya as a pet. Eventually, though, Mya would play a much bigger role in looking after him.
Mark lives with complex PTSD after serving in the British armed forces in the 1970s and 1980s. He was at the Liverpool docks by midnight on his 18th birthday, ready to go to Belfast and fight straight out of training. He was stationed in Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’, as the IRA fought to separate Ireland from UK rule, and he saw some things he
can never forget. Eventually, he had what he’d call a complete nervous breakdown. Psychologists would say it was like taking the lid off a pressure cooker: explosive and dangerous.
When he truly wasn’t coping, a mate of his got hold of someone from a charity that works with veterans. A woman arrived at his door, prepared to listen and to help him find a way to live. She noticed the bond Mark had with Mya, and how much the dog seemed to cheer him. Together, they decided to apply to the charity Veterans with Dogs, and Mark and Mya were accepted into the charity’s first-ever training program. Veterans with Dogs is run by a man called Craig MacLellan, a veteran with PTSD himself, and he knows perhaps better than anyone how powerfully supportive a dog can be (his was a chocolate Labrador called Fudge).
Mya was trained to be Mark’s mental health assistance dog; a job that requires her to wear a very smart blue-and white jacket. She and Mark would turn up at a facility and learn how to help each other, until she could pass an assessment on basic obedience and appropriate temperament.
The charity uses what’s called bond-based training to really consolidate the relationship between human and dog. They do not use punishment or chastising; they only believe in positive reinforcement. The key to any service animal relationship is for the beast to trust the human, so they absolutely cannot be scared or expect a telling-off. The dogs are trained to pick up on things that the human needs — physical pressure when they’re scared or angry, affection when they’re sad, that kind of thing — and then praised for that behaviour so they know to repeat it. The dogs will learn to measure a person’s mood and respond when they need support, company, or physical touch. A dog’s disposition is therefore very important for this line of work, and Mya is ideal, because she’s calm, loyal and unflappable.
In training, Mya learned to look out for Mark in any situation. She was rewarded each time she did something that supported Mark, which means she was given treats and praise the first time she simply rested her head on his lap while he was sitting down. Over time, she’s learned to read his moods and respond appropriately when he’s panicky or unsure of his surroundings.
For years before he got Mya, Mark would stay at home all the time, finding it very difficult to leave the house, to go to work or to see people. Just to get through the hours he was awake, he would drink — ending up downing two bottles of red wine and half a bottle of brandy every day, not for pleasure, but for survival. He found it was the only way he could tolerate being awake, and alive.
One evening some years ago, even alcohol could not hold the pain at bay, and he made the decision to take his own life. He took out some pills and a bottle of brandy, laid them out on the table in the living room and sat down, ready to leave this world. Mya, sensing that he was in distress, put herself between Mark and his drugs. She wouldn’t let him get to the table, using herself as a shield between him and his own destruction. She sat on his lap and moved her front legs onto his shoulders, so they were in a full body hug (she was by the
quite a lot bigger than she was as a pup). It was enough to stop him from killing himself. She reminded him, in that moment, that he had a reason to stay alive.
It wasn’t the only time she saved him from himself, either; she has stopped him from killing himself twice now, each time simply providing a barrier between him and his choice of destruction. He now knows, every day, that he has to stay alive for Mya. He knows that if he tries to harm himself, she’ll intervene. She can tell when he’s feeling sad, when he’s feeling angry and when he’s feeling so bitterly down that he could opt out of this life permanently. And she’s there, all the time, every time.
In fact, Mark and Mya are barely ever apart. They go everywhere together (assistance dogs are allowed everywhere except, funnily enough, military bases), and they sleep in the same bed (except on nights when Mark’s partner is there, when Mya relocates to a bed less than a metre away). Their lives are utterly entwined, and I suspect neither would really know, now, how to exist without the other.
Mark doesn’t drink anymore; he quit alcohol and cigarettes the day he picked Mya up from his friend’s house. Choosing to get a dog coincided with a much bigger decision in Mark’s life: the decision to let himself live. Mya’s arrival was an entirely new chapter for him. It has been a break from the past, in so much as that’s even possible for someone whose past visits him so often and so viscerally, without warning. He made a vow to her, and to himself, that he would give himself the best possible chance of staying alive, once she started living with him. He’s stayed true to that pledge every day for years now, and he swears that he simply wouldn’t be here anymore if it weren’t for that border collie–springer spaniel cross.
Mya does a lot of work for Mark where she has to be alert and able to navigate his moods. She knows when she’s working — she wears the jacket, she puts on her best professional face — and so Mark has made her a promise that she gets plenty of time where she just gets to be a dog. So, most mornings they go for a long walk together. She throws herself into the water again and again, chasing a stick, chasing a pigeon. She gets to be free and exist as an animal, which Mark thinks is really important for her. They live a good life together, the best they can.
To be around Mark and Mya is to be in the presence of love, to be sure. It is also to witness an extremely effective working relationship. Their bond is obvious and immense, and I truly believe they both live better lives for having one another.
PTSD is a particularly gnarly condition. It’s complicated and cruel and unrelenting. It’s dangerous. It’s extremely difficult to capture, and diagnose, and treat. Great hordes of people affected by it are extremely resistant to treatment if they ever even seek it.
As mentioned before, veterans are a particularly vulnerable group, with a high risk of depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicide, and with very few reliable options for serious respite. People are frightened and frustrated and desperate for something that works. That’s precisely why practices like pairing a veteran with a specially trained dog have become increasingly popular options — because people are increasingly desperate for anything that will help alleviate their suffering and diminish their sense of isolation. Giving someone a competent puppy to help them with companionship, security and the manifestation of their symptoms is a relatively cost-effective, low-risk complementary treatment to all the rest we’ve been trying.
I’m not suggesting that dogs can cure a person of an illness as serious as PTSD, or any illness for that matter — nobody is. But we’re starting to hear very real and very moving accounts from veterans who live with a dog and notice vitally important differences in their lives since that dog came to stay. Veterans who use dogs as their assistance animals report lower levels of depression and anxiety and have fewer hospitalisations. They speak about feeling safer, less lonely, less sad, and less panicked, better able to socialise and more likely to leave the house. They tend to take less medication than they did before they started spending time with the dog. There also seems to be less shame attached to canine therapy or assistance dogs, compared to other types of therapy.
Veterans, in particular, have tremendous difficulty being open and honest about their mental health problems and what they need to do to survive them. However, they seem to have less reticence about getting help from a dog; somehow, it’s less controversial, less indicative of some kind of weakness. Civilians, family members and strangers in public also seem to be coming around to the idea of assistance dogs accompanying people into places dogs are not usually allowed to go. Mark, for instance, has not once been challenged on his right to take Mya into a business, a building, or an event. She simply wears her jacket and gets on with the business of looking after him, uncontested.
The dogs we’re talking about here are capable of helping their humans in a number of special ways, just like Mya did with Mark. They can tell when their human companion is anxious, they know the signs of a panic attack, and they know it’s their job to step in and defuse it. They’re also specifically trained to recognise the signs of a night terror taking hold, like it does with Mark, and they know to do whatever they can to rouse their person.
These dogs also tend to make their veterans feel generally safer and more secure in the world. They know to suss out any new environment to identify where their available exits are in any room. They can help people relax, by climbing on top of them, resting on their lap and allowing themselves to be stroked, all of which we know can have a powerful calming effect.
Dogs are lovely, sweet, clever beings — most of us have always known that much. It is profoundly cheering that they can be so much more than that. We’re talking about creatures who can change the lives of their human companions. We’re talking about friendly beasts who can mitigate the symptoms of PTSD, temper depression, weaken anxiety, encourage sleep, promote socialisation, and gift a sense of safety to someone who yearns for nothing more desperately.
Mya has utterly changed the way Mark conducts his life — and, as we heard, actually gave him back the will to live. If she hadn’t been there on both the occasions he had chosen to end his life, he simply wouldn’t be around. Suicide is frighteningly prevalent — among men in general, and particularly among veterans of war. When we send a human being to battle and they come back changed, wounded and less like themselves, we have a responsibility to find a way to help them heal. What if one of the most powerful ways we can salvage their lives for them is to give them a dog? Wouldn’t that be something?
CREDIT LINE: This is an adapted excerpt taken from Good Dog: Celebrating the dogs who change, and sometimes even save, our lives, by Kate Leaver, published by HarperCollins and out now.