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Connecting Veterans with Service Animals: Paul & Elsa

There’s a difference between knowing something logically and experiencing it first-hand. Paul, a Vietnam Navy veteran, knew getting a service dog would be beneficial. But actually getting Elsa and experiencing life with her has been a “pleasant surprise” he didn’t quite expect.

Paul has struggled with PTSD-related anxiety for years. The biggest change since getting Elsa, he says, has been having someone else to focus his attention on. Rather than on everything going on around him.

“I would say the dog has calmed me down from my high vigilance of awareness,” he says. “I still have that, but she is a welcome distraction. I spend several hours a day with her with continued training and outside recreation.”

She also helps him remain calm when out and about, like when running errands or doing shopping.

“If I go somewhere, I take her with me and it allows me to focus on her instead of the people around me.”

One possible side effect of Elsa’s presence has been a reduction in Paul's night terrors.

Elsa knows to respond to a specific sound that Paul makes if he’s about to have a night terror episode. The training is something that needs to be reinforced. So, he and his wife regularly simulate an episode to keep Elsa current in her training.

Since getting Elsa in February 2021 and starting the night terror training with her, Paul hasn’t had night terrors to the extent that he did before. He thinks just knowing that Elsa is there to wake him up has been enough to ease his mind and keep the night terrors at bay.


A Match Meant to Be

Paul met Elsa in February 2021, after Synergy Labs partnered with Highland Canine to fund the training of two service dogs that would be donated to local North Carolina-based veterans. It’s a cause that’s close to home for Synergy Labs. The company’s manufacturing facility is located in North Carolina (as of 2020), and many of its employees are veterans.

“Wanting to connect and give back to this new community is what brought on this initiative to specifically benefit veterans through the amazing things we believe animals can do for people,” the company said.

The timing of Synergy Lab’s initiative couldn’t have been better for Paul. After a couple of years of trying to find a service dog, he was ready to give up. The search had been stressful and the VA wasn’t helping. For a veteran with PTSD, the anxiety created by the search wasn’t worth it.

And then he heard about Highland Canine. And they were training a beautiful apricot Golden Labrador Retriever named Elsa, sponsored by Synergy Labs. It was a perfect match and Elsa’s training was expanded to include tasks specific to Paul’s needs.  

Aside from waking Paul from his night terrors, Elsa is also trained in deep pressure therapy. If Paul is feeling anxious, he can call Elsa over and she will put her paws and head in his lap to provide a feeling of security.


Learning Curve

One of the biggest changes for Paul – and his wife – has been learning to live with a dog again. They’d had pet dogs before but it had been years since their last dog passed away. And Elsa isn’t a pet dog.

Learning to share their space with her was something they both had to get used to.

“We went from zero to a hundred learning curve and it was a handful. We had this little one year old and we questioned ourselves many times…

“It took us a little bit of time to understand what she had been trained to do and figure out how that worked for us and our lifestyle,” he says.

And it wasn’t only a learning curve for Paul. Elsa also had to learn new things. Like how to chase and bring back a ball, because she’d never learned to play.

“We have found out that she is unbelievably smart and easy to train, easy to adapt,” Paul says.

Ultimately, having Elsa in his life has been phenomenal, he says, adding he’d recommend it to anyone who needs that extra bit of help a service dog can provide.

To learn more about Highland Canine’s Service Dog training services, visit highlandcanine.com/service-dogs.