Stallone is a dog with a day job.
In his down time, he’s a regular 1-year-old Golden Labrador who likes to go on walks, romp without his leash and scarf dog food. But, when he wears his vest, he is all business.
Stallone is a psychiatric service dog, trained by Canines 4 Hope in Palm City, Florida, who was placed with the Skora family in mid-February to comfort Troy, an 11-year-old rural Burlington boy who looks just like any other boy of his age.
Because of abuse at the hands of his biological parents, Troy suffers from Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). While behaviors in this population vary widely, children with PTSD often show agitated or confused behavior and feelings of helplessness, anger, sadness, horror or denial.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children, such as Troy who have suffered repeated trauma can develop a type of emotional numbing to deaden or block the pain and trauma. This is called dissociation. Children with PTSD often avoid situations or places that remind them of the trauma and may become less responsive emotionally, depressed, withdrawn and more detached from their feelings.
In Troy’s case, he suffers frequent memories of the event, and deals with nightmares, terrors and hallucinationsduring the day.
“Sometimes it is hard and I get really angry when I see a really good family and I wonder why I didn’t get that when I was younger,” he said. “It has affected my spelling and reading, and it has been hard for me to go to school because of flashbacks, day terrors and just being with other kids during the day.”
Abusive upbringing left emotional scars
As the middle child, Troy is sandwiched between biological siblings, 16-year-old Tabresha, nicknamed “Bre,” and 8-year-old Antoine. While all three children are affected by their abusive upbringing, Bre and Troy were affected the most.
The children entered separate foster homes in 2007, reunited when Rose Skora took them in, and were adopted by her in November 2009. A year after the adoptions were final, the severity of their abuse began unraveling.
“Bre was removed from the home at 8 years old, and the abuse began with her and Troy after they reached 18 months,” said Skora. “Antoine sort of escaped it as he was removed from the home before that age, but he lived with the chaos of observing the abuse as a baby, so he was affected too.”
In the beginning, Skora, a member of St. Robert Bellarmine in Union Grove enrolled the children at Providence Catholic School, but the PTSD was so hindering, that she moved them to public school where they had additional programming to accommodate children with emotional issues. This school year, due to additional issues with their PTSD symptoms, Skora is homeschooling Bre and Troy and has enrolled Antoine at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School in Burlington.
Turns to animals for comfort
Because he is so attached to the farm animals on their property, Skora believes Stallone will comfort Troy in ways that she can’t, and raised funds to help her offset the $10,000 required to purchase and train the dog.
“Last year, after noticing that when Troy needed comfort he would go to the barn and pick up animals to calm
Benefits of PTSD service dogs
Canines 4 Hope has been training PTSD service dogs in Florida and around the country for 20 years. They have had remarkable success in helping veterans and others suffering from PTSD.
■ They are trained to assist in a medical crisis
According to Canines 4 Hope, the PTSD service dog can provide a sense of security, calming effects, and physical exercise that can make a positive difference in the life of those that suffer with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Like all assistance dogs, a psychiatric service dog is individually trained to do work or perform tasks that mitigate their handler’s disability. Training may include providing environmental assessment (in such cases as paranoia or hallucinations), signaling behaviors (such as interrupting repetitive or injurious behavior reminding the handler to take medication, retrieving objects and guiding the handler from stressful situations.
PTSD service dogs can change the life of a veteran or other persons with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD service dogs can help a veteran remain calm by preventing people from crowding around or rushing up behind in public places which will provide a comfortable space for the veteran or PTSD sufferer. For more information, visit: www.canines4hope.com
him, I began doing research on service dogs. I connected with a Wisconsin agency, but we were pretty far down on the waiting list. I felt like I was running out of options to help Troy,” she said. “There are not a lot of non-profits that will train dogs for kids with PTSD, but I found this group in Florida and knew that I had to make it work for Troy.”
After connecting with Canines 4 Hope, Troy picked out Stallone. In July, the dog traveled to Florida for extensive training; Troy and his family traveled to Florida to train with the dog in February for four days before bringing him home.
While Bre might also benefit from a service dog, she is able to manage her symptoms better with medication than Troy, explained Skora. She also felt that with Bre getting older, she might not be as willing to have an animal with her 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, for Troy, the service dog seems to be the key that may open his world; and Troy is excited about the arrival of his new companion.
“Every service dog knows when you are going to have a heart attack or stroke, but PTSD service dogs are trained to get help for you or get you somewhere to get help,” said Troy. “I hope he can help me when things get really bad.”
When his symptoms become too much to handle, Troy will breathe heavily, and get out of control behavior-wise explained Skora.
“He is in fight or flight mode and has done a lot of running away and fighting back,” she said, adding, “Some weeks, there is more flighting and others more fighting. I am hoping that the dog will pick up on a change in his heart rate and will alert him and me. My goal is that when Troy is starting a flashback, he will be able to breathe and use all of the techniques to get calmed down. Now, by the time I recognize there is something going on, he is so far gone. It is hard to reel him back in. I always know something is going on because he looks like a caged animal. His eyes glaze over and if he flashes back before I become aware of it, things get out of control.”
Fundraisers cover cost of dog
A first fundraiser in August at the Brat Stop raised about $6,000 toward the purchase and training of Stallone.
The funds included a matching donation of $500 by Catholic Financial Life. An online donation site, a second fundraiser in October and a grant from the P.E.O. Sisterhood, a philanthropic organization that celebrates the advancement of women brought in the remainder of the funds needed to bring Stallone home.
“I am putting a lot of hope into this dog because I feel that a well-trained dog to help in any way will be freeing for Troy,” she said, fingers twisting together on her lap. “Right now, I can’t let him be anywhere without me or someone else who understands him because he can have a bad outburst and gets upset. If we go to people’s houses, I don’t know when something is going to happen.”
Service dog is ‘trusted friend’
Stallone has only been a member of the family for about five weeks, and Skora admitted progress has been slow.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve seen is that Troy is recognizing – and certainly this will be a process – that he has someone he can count on no matter what, and someone who will never hurt him. (Stallone) will be there for him when he is struggling and will be there when he is happy,” said Skora, noting that Stallone immediately took to his role as service dog, but the adjustment for Troy, realizing the value of Stallone, has taken longer.
“Troy has some pretty challenging behaviors, and the dog definitely reacts to that, but never in a negative way. I think Troy is learning this dog can be a trusted dog who will always be there for him…. What I didn’t realize is how hard it is for Troy to trust and to develop appropriate bonding, which based on his background, really shouldn’t have been a surprise.”
Because Stallone is Troy’s service dog, Troy is the one who must care for the dog’s needs. Skora admitted it’s been an adjustment to teach her son that he must look out for the dog’s care by making sure he’s fed and taken out regularly, but she said, “In the long run, the fact he has this responsibility is a very good thing.”
If Troy is able to work through some of the effects of PTSD through the help of Stallone, he may feel peaceful enough to develop his love for art, and enjoy working on the family farm a bit more.
Bre hopes to continue singing in the children’s choir at St. Francis Xavier and cantoring at St. Robert parishes.
“I love to sing and try to sing at church as much as I can,” she said. “I also like art, playing in sports and crocheting.”
Energetic Antoine enjoys running and ran a 5K to raise funds for Huntington Disease, a disease that claimed his adoptive grandmother.
“I would like to find more time to run,” he said.
With the assistance of Stallone, Skora hopes that the dog will be such a comfort that Troy’s emotions become under control more quickly and that calm will replace the turmoil the family endures each day.
“I am praying that this will stop things so they don’t get so escalated,” she said. “We all struggle so much and deal with constant chaos. We need peace. I need peace.”