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Invisible Disabilities: A local Marine's service dog helps him cope with PTSD

Chris Winkler's service dog, Ryelie Jo, goes with him everywhere. (KATU Photo)

People who don’t appear disabled but walk with service dogs are people with invisible disabilities and depend on their animals.

Chris Winkler got his service dog, Ryelie Jo, when she was just a month old. Now at 15 months, she helps Winkler in his civilian world. He was a combat Marine who served three tours and was honorably discharged 5 years ago.

“You see a lot. In that comes inherent dangers – taking fire, returning fire, and stuff comes to you in the middle of the night sometimes,” he says.

Ryelie Jo is trained to turn on the light and physically calm him.

“I wake up out of that with unconditional love right there. She’s licking me and loving me all right there in the moment – tangible love, and that’s a very big thing when you’re coming out of something absolutely terrifying,” Winkler says.

“Dogs are incredibly empathetic. They can smell those hormones the moment they’re released. They can sense the anxiety and the tension in the handler that they’re with,” says Jensen Hoffman, who’s trained animals for nearly 20 years.

He says these dogs have an acute sense off awareness, especially when it comes to PTSD.

“They can actually pre-warn the handler that, OK, you’re beginning to regress,” says Hoffman. “They can do that with a paw on the lap, head on the lap, it’s very powerful.”

To help Winkler cope, Ryelie Jo goes where he goes – from the coffee shop to the grocery store. He says people are accepting and respect Ryelie Jo and her important job. He hopes others with PTSD might see his story and know they’re not alone.

“These dogs are so well trained and acute to human nature (that) they know your emotions. When I get upset, she will come and put her head on me. … They’re in touch on a different level.”

Right now, the Oregon VA doesn’t provide service dogs, but it is in the process of looking at the benefits of these companion dogs for vets.

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