A Service Dog, A Veteran, and the Journey Back From the Edge
by TIM CRAIG
Six years ago, Morgan Watt’s life changed. And it came on four legs.
In January 2015, Watt was matched with Foley, a Goldador service canine that specializes in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder intervention, and his life was never the same.
“Ten years ago, I was dealing with chronic pain, particularly migraines, that would come out of nowhere and feel like they would never go away,” says Watt. “I didn’t know it, but it was PTSD from my time in the Air Force. It got so bad I couldn’t tell the difference between physical pain and psychological pain. I was very suicidal. I felt that way for three years, every day, with a couple of attempts along the way.”
Watt is one of the estimated 12 to 15 percent of veterans who suffer from PTSD, according to the National Center for PTSD. Many, like Watt, suffer for years with undiagnosed symptoms and triggers — undiagnosed because of the stigma that surrounds mental health and the military.
“PTSD, it’s really complex – it’s not just one event, but many traumatic events,” says Watt.
Watt joined the Air Force at 19 and gravitated to the military police, focusing on the Canine Corps. He was trained to work in the explosive detection detail.
“As military police, I dealt with a whole range of issues, from domestic violence to suicide to car deaths,” says Watt.
After his military service, Watt became a pilot for a business airline. This is when the chronic pain started. His wife worked for Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto and advocated for him to apply.
“Because of my canine corps experience, I knew I had a bond with dogs,” he says, “so I thought, maybe I should try to get a dog of my own.”
The process included an exhaustive written application, multiple letters of reference, home visits and face-to-face interviews that gauged everything from the speed of his walk to the size, demeanor, and other special qualities he was looking for in a service animal.
“They asked what I was trying to accomplish and how I thought a dog would help me,” he says. “I had to explain what I needed, then they tried to find a dog that would meet those needs. And they really matched me with the perfect dog.”
Foley, a 55-pound half Labrador Retriever/half Golden Retriever, was everything Watt was looking for and more.
“I was never alone again. He became like an intervention for me,” says Watt. “If I ever got into an episode, he would come up, curl up against me and there is something about that tactile feel, about feeling and matching his breath that is so helpful.
“I mean, you can go to a therapist, but what happens when it’s 3 a.m. and you wake up with an anxiety attack?” he says. “Foley is right there, all the time.”
The pair have grown so close that Foley has developed the ability to sense when Watt’s migraines are coming on, 45 minutes prior to the first sign of pain. Watt’s experience with bomb-sniffing dogs helped him recognize changes in Foley’s behavior when a migraine was coming on.
“He would come up and whine a little and start licking aggressively. I paired that up with what I already knew,” says Watt. After he figured out the reaction to the cause, Watt was able to work out a reward system for Foley to reinforce the behavior.
“Now he’s on automatic. When he senses a migraine, he’ll go get my medication, and drop it at my feet,” says Watt.
K-9 services are critical to treating PTSD, but not every veteran is able to go through the process, according to Dan Jarvis, the founder of 22Zero, a Polk County nonprofit that started in April 2018. 22Zero focuses on peer-to-peer coaching to overcome PTSD.
Jarvis, a former drill instructor in the U.S. Army and former deputy for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, started 22Zero after he couldn’t secure services for his own PTSD, despite being a veteran.
“After I left the Sheriff’s Office, I started a downward spiral,” Jarvis explains. “I just fell through the cracks. And I knew if I was falling through the cracks, there were a lot of others who would as well.”
In the past three years, Jarvis and his team, including Dr. Janelle Royster, developed a peer-to-peer coaching model to help people overcome the effects of PTSD. The peer-to-peer model was developed as an alternative to traditional exposure therapy models, and nearly 1,300 people have become PTSD-free, according to Jarvis.
The program is now used in 19 states and also partners with law enforcement and fire departments as well as healthcare professionals, who also can have PTSD.
“The peer-to-peer part of it helps de-stigmatize the idea of mental health therapy,” says Jarvis. “It helps people in a way that traditional therapy doesn’t.”
It’s the stigma of therapy that pushed Watt to start speaking in public about his experiences.
“For the past couple of years, I have been going out and telling my story,” he says. “People need to know that they are not alone. My main message is that it’s OK to ask for help. Asking for help saved my life and it was also the hardest step — but it wasn’t until I asked for help that I started getting better.”
When Watt first started, Foley — always on duty — would react to his “horrendous” nervousness and try to pull him off the stage, away from the stress.
“Now, though, through practice and training, Foley is like, ‘OK, I’ve heard this, I can go to sleep,’ says Watt.
And that’s perfectly OK with Watt.