Carbondale This Able Veteran graduates another class of canine companions for veterans

By BY ISAAC SMITH | The Southern Illinoisan, Ill. | Published: December 14, 2018

CARBONDALE (Tribune News Service) -- Luca Leyva has learned a lot about himself looking into the soft, dark eyes of Lobo.

For three weeks, the two have been inseparable as they learn each other's cues. When Leyva tenses up, whether he knows he is or not, Lobo is there to gently ground him back in the moment.

Leyva needs the reminders -- the 33-year-old from New York spent nine years in the Air Force and has post-traumatic stress disorder. He said a service animal came at the recommendation of multiple medical professionals as a way to help him cope with his symptoms.

That's how he found Carbondale's This Able Veteran -- a not-for-profit founded in 2011 that provides service animals to military veterans in need.

Outside of the sit, stay, heel type of basic obedience, Leyva said he has spent the last three weeks since Thanksgiving learning deeply about one word: "awareness." This Able Veteran calls this their "Resiliency Training Program."

"I have to stay present," he said about his time with Lobo, the slim, 2-year-old black lab that doesn't leave his side. He said through learning how to lead and work with Lobo he has learned a lot about leadership itself.

Alicia Ruiz is a member of the board and the event director for TAV and said the dogs, the training and even accommodations for each class of veterans is entirely covered by the organization.

She said the dogs are trained in basic commands and obedience before beginning to be trained to notice subtle human behaviors. This can be the twirling of hair or bouncing of a knee when someone is starting to get stressed or nervous. After getting these basics down, the trainers can even work with the animals to recognize specific tics exhibited by their future partners.

When the dog notices this, it can give a simple nudge to alert the person. But this is where the human-side of the training comes in: The veterans who are being paired with the animals have to then learn how to respond to these signals from their companions, Ruiz said.

Lobo and Leyva connected pretty quick. He said he knew by Day 3 that their relationship was a deep one -- he knew even before Lobo did.

This was the first night the veterans in the program took the dogs to a hotel with them.
"I had a nightmare that I lost him," Leyva remembered.

The hardest part of the TAV training was not working with the dog -- at least not directly. Leyva said it was learning to work with his own mind.

There was a big question that he remembered as being a sort of theme for the TAV workshop: Would you want to know if something you believed was wrong?

Leyva said of course the knee-jerk reaction here is to say "yes." But he said it's not always that simple.

He said some of the thoughts are just hard to challenge. He confided that he had difficulty shutting out the idea that "I should suffer." Also difficult to accept is the idea "I did my best."

Leyva said he was learning that people, especially people with PTSD, are not always aware of the war in their own minds.

As a military man, he said he sometimes struggled with the triage of problems he was asked to solve. In his training he said to look for the arterial wound and stop the bleeding -- but what he was asked to do as part of his work TAV was to focus on what he called "paper cuts."

This was revelatory, though, as he came to understand that "paper cuts lead back to the arterial wound."

So now, when he gets a cue from Lobo, Leyva said it can be to a behavior or warning sign for anxiety that he hadn't even noticed himself. He said he will either reflect then or write down a note to do further reflection later and work through to the source of the anxiety or stressor.

Leyva said he deeply misses his partner and 2-year-old son back in New York City, but said he is also conflicted about the program coming to an end -- he said he's not quote ready to leave either.

However, he is leaving with more than he came with, even outside of Lobo's company. He said before coming to Southern Illinois, he had distanced himself from the military and veteran community, but said since spending so much time with so many others with shared experiences he has walked away with an "awesome, weird-ass family."

But he knows even when he leaves, the there will be a support system both with his new found family and from TAV.

"You are never alone," is the mantra he has been reminded of over and over.

The three-week program will come to an end for the 11-veteran cohort at 6 p.m. Friday with a graduation ceremony at the Carterville Community Center and is open to the public.

(c)2018 The Southern Illinoisan, Ill.
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