Kaylie Nyman has found some stability and peace since being in the right place at the right time brought Viper into her life.
Nyman has dealt with a series of physical and mental traumas since childhood, but with the help of her 11-year-old husky-border collie mix, she is undergoing owner-led therapy dog training to help her cope. his anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and recovery from substance use.
Viper has not only been a great companion to Nyman, but a loving and protective member of his family.
Life was far from easy for Nyman before Viper. She suffered severe injuries and trauma as a child, being punched in the side of the head, damaging her hearing. She is also genetically predisposed to hearing loss. At age 12, she was shot while living in Neepawa. She also started using methamphetamine, but she has been sober for about a year.
Lockdowns and other personal tragedies piled up, making daily life more difficult for her.
“I used to go for a walk every day before COVID hit and then we were locked down,” she said. “Then my grandmother died and I fell into depression. I shut down; I wasn’t even talking to my mother.
She first met Viper in April when she was at the Brandon Friendship Center and a man came in, dropped Viper off and called City Bylaw Animal Control, explaining he had to give Viper away because he was moving and would not return to Brandon. for a certain time.
“I said ‘I’ll take her’ and my building is across the street and allows pets,” she said. “I updated his vaccines and got a license [him] through the city.”
Shortly after getting Viper, Nyman said she noticed he was protecting her. It wasn’t in an aggressive way, but he moaned to get her attention when she felt sad or anxious, or when her husband playfully teased Viper, he moaned to make him stop.
He also pushed her to be more active, often nudging her and moaning when she didn’t get out of bed.
“I have my good days and my bad days with my depression, but he pushes me out,” she said. “He tells me it’s time to get out by nudging me.”
There was an incident in which he saved her from a panic attack in public. She had been out for a walk and heard a car engine backfire, which triggered her anxiety as it sounded like a gunshot.
“He felt it and started pulling me inside [the apartment building] like he’s saying ‘Come on, mum, we need to get away from this,'” Nyman said. “During the night he didn’t want to go out to go to the bathroom, he stayed with me because he knew I was in the wrong place.”
The couple underwent owner-led training at Grasslands Canine Development with the help of trainer Aubrey Burgoyne.
On Thursday, the couple were working on the basics, like avoiding distractions like food and communicating through eye contact and hand signals. Burgoyne led the two through gentle drills with his dog, Franklin, as an assistant and another variable to teach Viper how to stay focused. The two walked together past a small pile of food in the middle of the floor of the open area in the center. Every time Viper passed by without noticing the food, or Franklin, Nyman rewarded him with a small treat.
Positive reinforcement is key to training, Burgoyne said, because it shows the dog that it’s beneficial for him and the person to listen to commands and stay focused.
There were some issues with Viper staying focused, but Burgoyne said that was likely due to him being late in the day and likely tired and restless. She suggested Nyman train earlier in the day so it would be easier for the two to work out and bond.
Overall, she said Viper and Nyman are doing well in their training. Burgoyne said she reached out to help him practice because she watches them and Viper is not easily distracted and very attentive to Nyman.
Once they’ve mastered the basics, she said they can move on to more advanced techniques, such as deep pressure therapy, where the dog encourages the person to sit down if they show signs of a anxiety attack and the dog lies down in his body. The weight and warmth of the dog soothes the person, she says. It also helps bring the person back to the present and get out of their stressful state.
Owner-directed therapy is very different from professional training, Burgoyne explained, because it places the commitment of the training on the person who will need the dog. Also, like Viper, they are often dogs of various backgrounds and ages, as opposed to professional dogs that come from breeding programs that focus on therapeutic training.
However, it’s also more affordable than getting a therapy dog from organizations like Wounded Warriors. According to the group’s website, it costs between $15,000 and $18,000 to train a dog.
“These professional therapy dogs are great, but they’re expensive and often chosen before they’re born,” she said. “For that, it’s more affordable, but the dog has to have the right type of personality and the person and the dog have to have a strong bond.”
She can attest to the proper functioning of owner-trained therapy dogs, as Franklin is a therapy dog for her to help manage her Tourette. Since she had it, it has been easier to manage her condition.
Regardless of their training, therapy dogs are working animals and need to keep their attention focused on their human, Burgoyne said, so it’s best not to distract them. This is a safety hazard to both dogs and humans, she said, because the dog must be ready to react if the human shows signs of an episode. It can also tire the dog more quickly, making it harder for him to work consistently.
She lent Nyman a dog therapy vest for Viper to wear, but people still want to pet Viper.
“People think you have to have a physical disability to need a service animal, but therapy dogs are service animals too,” she said.
Having Viper gives Nyman more confidence in her life, and she is already making long-term plans, including reuniting with a daughter from a previous relationship.
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