Ryan Garrison’s service dog wouldn’t stop bugging him.
At a dinner outing with his wife, Julie, at Fleming’s Steakhouse in Baltimore, Garrison was growing nervous, clenching his hands. Being in public spaces had been a problem for the veteran since his return from Iraq, where he fractured two disks in his spine escaping a grenade blast in 2007.
On that March night at the restaurant, his English black Labrador, Luke, nudged him.
“What’s wrong?” wondered Garrison, 39, who retired from the Air Force in June as a staff sergeant. Normally reserved on these outings, Luke sprang up between Garrison’s legs and looked him in the eye, “like, ‘Hey, look at me.’ ”
“All of a sudden, my light bulb goes off, like ‘Hey, my leg’s bouncing. I’m having an anxiety attack,’ ” Garrison said, recalling how his new companion eased his nerves.
On Saturday, Garrison and his wife joined dozens at a graduation ceremony for Luke and nine other pooches, service dogs who went through a rigorous, two-year training regimen to serve as companions for veterans overcoming the stress of combat.
Volunteers train the puppies from when they are eight to 10 weeks old until they reach age 2, when they go to live with veterans.
After being paired with Luke, Garrison – who received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder – saw a drop in the anxiety attacks that had been a twice-a-week affair. Now, he said, he’s more confident venturing out, going to restaurants and buying groceries.
“When I take Luke out now, all my focus is on him, making sure he’s not smelling something, making sure he’s not bothering anybody,” Garrison said. “In return, he knows my anxiety cues.”
Saturday’s event in Rockville, Maryland, marked the fourth graduation exercise for Warrior Canine Connection, which uses dogs to help wounded veterans reconnect with daily life. The floppy-eared graduates were treated to all the commencement hallmarks: a speaker, the ritual playing of “Pomp and Circumstance,” hugs and kisses from the volunteers who reared them, and some crying in the crowd.
Julie Garrison broke into tears as she described Luke’s impact. The stress of combat and chronic pain had led to bouts of “blind rage” in her husband, she said, but Luke had all but erased them. “It’s just joyful now. Because of that soft presence of Luke,” she said