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Santa Rosa’s Canine Companions for Independence opens training center for dogs who help veterans with PTSD

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In the bad dreams, David Flanders is up in a helicopter, somewhere between Saigon and Da Nang, shooting and being shot at. The 76-year-old Air Force veteran returned from Vietnam in 1967, but the war stayed with him.

When he’s having one of his nightmares, Flanders’ wife doesn’t like to wake him up. He’s a big man, and tends to thrash around.

Now, she doesn’t have to. Fourteen months ago, the Santa Rosa-based nonprofit Canine Companions paired the Air Force veteran with a golden Lab mix called Sesame — “like the street,” Flanders said. “When I start moving or yelling in my dreams,” he says, “she’ll get on my chest and wake me up. She’s very good at it.”

Canine Companions for Independence has been helping veterans with disabilities by matching them with highly trained assistance dogs, free of charge, for over 40 years. More recently, they’ve begun pairing their dogs with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

On Tuesday, Flanders and Sesame helped celebrate the opening of a new training building on the nonprofit’s 12-acre campus on Dutton Avenue. It was no ordinary ribbon cutting. Flanders’ voice cracked as he thanked a roomful of Canine Companion staff and benefactors.

“This dog has meant the world to me,” he said. “She’s my life — she gave me life. I was on the verge of suicide before I met her. And she brought me back.”

He and Sesame are one of 13 teams of service dogs Canine Companion has paired with veterans suffering from PTSD. The new space christened Tuesday is more open, and has few windows, offering fewer distractions for veterans during the intensive, two-week training they go through while learning to work with their service dogs.

Sesame and her peers are trained specifically to perform tasks designed to ease the burden on veterans with post-traumatic stress. “They’re like pet dogs with benefits,” said Bruce Pitman, who retired last year from the Marine Corps, at the rank of colonel, after 34 years of service. “Those additional training skills are pretty helpful.”

Asked to name some of those skills, Pitman politely informed a reporter, “As you can see, he’s creating a barrier between you and me.”

He was referring to his golden mix, Wembley, who had, indeed, posted up between his master and the stranger.

Pitman went into combat 11 times during his career. But the images that most often haunt his dreams are not from battle. He was stationed in Nairobi, Kenya, when the U.S. embassies in that city and in Tanzania were bombed in 1998, killing 224 people and wounding thousands. Pitman worked on “recovery operations,” pulling bodies out of the rubble.

While Wembley is an expert at creating space for Pitman and recognizing, then soothing his anxiety by placing his head on the man’s leg, the dog seldom gets a chance to interrupt a nightmare. Pitman’s wife, Brigid, usually beats him to the punch.

Before the dog can reach the bed, “she’s already nailed me with an elbow,” Pitman said.

Canine Companions was instrumental in helping the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs complete a study measuring the impact of Sesame, Wembley and their fellow assistance dogs on service members suffering post-traumatic stress.

That study is expected to be completed and published by June, said Paige Mazzoni, CEO of the nonprofit. As it is, the VA provides service dog benefits for veterans with physical disabilities. Based at least in part on what it learns from the study, the VA will make a decision about whether or not it will provide similar benefits for canines helping service members suffering from PTSD.

“They’re very interested,” said Mazzoni of the VA, “and it’s the right thing to do.”

Flanders provides highly persuasive evidence of that. The Air Force vet’s nightmares have been far less frequent since he teamed up with Sesame. “She’s just comforting,” he explained. When it’s time to go to bed, “she just kind of takes my anxiety. And I can sleep.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com, or 707-521-5214. On Twitter @AusMurph88

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