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Carlos sits with his wife Elana, young son, and his dog, Fiona.

Bellingham's Brigadoon Service Dogs Give Veterans with PTSD New Life

Gig Harbor's Carlos Westergaard served in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and 2004. But when he came back from war he knew something wasn't right. He couldn't sleep, he had anxiety.

"There's times when I didn't feel safe in my own house," Carlos said. "You know, an ambulance would go by, helicopters, a lot of paranoia. I used to have night terrors and sleep in the closet. I was housebound for probably over a year. A lot of substance abuse."

One day, while doing online research, Carlos' wife Elana found Bellingham's Brigadoon Service Dogs, founded by dog trainer Denise Costanten. Denise used to train pets, but wanted to use her skills for something more meaningful. So for the past 10 years, she's trained dogs to help people.

"We train dogs for children with autism, diabetes, seizures, adults with vision impaired, hearing impaired," Denise said. "Our veterans who have come back, our wounded warriors, with PTSD."

The dogs are each specifically trained to accommodate a person's unique needs. Everything from turning lights on and off to waking a veteran up from a night terror.

"We've got a Down syndrome child who wanders a lot. She has not gone anywhere since she's gotten her dog. She doesn't hold her family hostage anymore. They go anywhere they want to go. They went to a Mariners game, they went to a big church picnic. These are things that people don't think of that this family could not do in fear of losing their child."

In 2012, Carlos was paired with a black lab named Fiona and they've together at all times. Fiona often stands behind Carlos so he doesn't have to worry that someone is sneaking up behind him, a common fear of veterans with PTSD.

"I take a lot of medications but there's about four, maybe five, that I've stopped taking since I've had Fiona," Carlos said. "I'm able to go out and be in public. You know, a restaurant or coffee shop, regular things that weren't an option for me. I felt kind of trapped and helpless."

Fiona's presence is also a huge relief to Carlos' wife, Elana.

"I don't even know what life was like without Fiona. He loves her so much. Definitely, the wives get jealous, I'm not gonna lie. But it's a good thing because it gives me a break. Before I ended up quitting my job because he needed so much help and couldn't be left alone. I couldn't even go to the grocery store because he'd have panic attacks and need someone to be there right away. So now if he's starting to feel like he's going to go into a panic attack mode, she catches him before it even happens. She gets right in his lap, he can pet her. She just reminds him where he is. He's not in Iraq. We're here in Gig Harbor, we're not off at war."

Denise's service is one of a kind and as an always-struggling non-profit, Denise started a prison program, where inmates south of Olympia help her train some of the dogs.

"Currently we're the only facility that's accredited by the Assistance Dog International, known as ADI, that's offering dogs to our veterans."

A lot of veterans with PTSD struggle to ask for help and they're afraid to show signs of weakness. But Carlos says any stigma that having a service dog may have has been completely overridden by his love ad thankfulness for Fiona.

"I have a child now and I was just a mess. [Elana] was pregnant when I got Fiona. I just thought I was worthless, I won't have anything to offer that kid. Now I feel like I'm a good dad. I would never have imagined that before Fiona came."

Brigadoon Service Dogs is a non-profit that relies on donations. Click on the link to give.

Rachel Belle, Ron and Don Show Reporter
Rachel Belle is a feature contributor and personality on The Ron & Don Show on KIRO Radio (weekdays 3-7pm), and host of Ring My Belle Weekends (Sundays at 3pm).
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