TUESDAY, Sept. 10, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- A big floppy-faced St. Bernard saved the life of Army veteran and combat medic Brian Gliba -- but not in the way you might think.
Gliba first met Zeus in 2009 while battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and dealing with the medical havoc wrought by an IED blast he survived in Iraq.
Zeus' main job was to help Gliba remember to take the heavy doses of medication he required to stay alive, but Gliba soon realized his dog was providing an even more vital service.
"Zeus was the whole reason I was able to go beyond and continue living," said Gliba, 45, of Colorado Springs, Colo. "I was suicidal. I wouldn't go out of the house. It took Zeus to give me the courage to keep going. They'll look at you and say, 'It's OK, Dad, let's go, we can do it.' You can see it on their face."
Gliba is one of the success stories of Canines Providing Assistance to Wounded Warriors (C-PAWW), a health research initiative at the Florida Atlantic University College of Nursing in Boca Raton, Fla.
C-PAWW works to advance research to prove the benefits of service and companion dogs for military veterans struggling with PTSD and other health issues, said director and founder Cheryl Krause-Parello.
"The dogs and the bond the veterans have with these animals really can change their lives," said Krause-Parello, a professor of holistic health at Florida Atlantic University.
Krause-Parello's main goal at this point is to establish enough scientific evidence so that veterans struggling to make ends meet will be able to have their service animal expenses reimbursed by insurance.
"Our program is providing the evidence to support changes so veterans can have access to these animals and get reimbursed for some of the expenses they incur by having these service animals," Krause-Parello said.
In their most recent study, Krause-Parello and her colleagues found that having therapy dogs in an air medical evacuation center helped reduce markers of stress in wounded soldiers awaiting transport.
Levels of the stress hormone cortisol decreased dramatically in soldiers after they spent 20 minutes with a therapy dog, researchers recently reported in the journal Stress and Health. Patients also had a greater reduction in immunoglobulin A, a blood protein related to stress that impacts the immune system.
C-PAWW came about as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Krause-Parello's husband is a Marine veteran and was a first responder at Ground Zero in New York City. He spent weeks working both there and at a landfill used as a sorting ground for rubble taken from the World Trade Center site.
Each day her husband would return home, strip off his dirty clothes in their garage, take a hot shower, then sit quietly and meditate with her dachshund, Samantha.
"I would watch him from a distance, because I really didn't want to disturb what he was doing to help bring himself back to the world," Krause-Parello said. "He would just pet Samantha and, to me, it seemed like he was petting away all the trauma he was experiencing."
Gliba was deployed to Iraq in 2004, where he was placed in charge of running humanitarian missions. On one such mission an IED exploded, breaking his neck, crushing vertebrae and causing systemic damage to his body.
As a result, Gliba has to take large doses of hormones and other medications to stay alive, but he has trouble remembering to take his meds.
Doctors tried an implant and an auto-injector, but neither helped, Gliba recalled. Finally, someone suggested he try a service dog.
Zeus helped remind Gliba to take his drugs, and "he was accurate 100% of the time," Gliba said. At his lowest point, Gliba had to take as many as 30 different drugs in one sitting.
But Zeus also performed invaluable service helping Gliba deal with his PTSD.
"He would keep people away from me when I was suffering," Gliba said. "Any time I was having an episode, he would distract me by pawing me or jumping up on me and getting me to focus on him."
There's a growing body of evidence that animal-assisted therapies can help reduce stress and improve outcomes in PTSD, said Mayer Bellehsen, director of the Feinberg Division of the Unified Behavioral Health Center for Military Veterans and Their Families, in Bay Shore, N.Y.
"PTSD is associated with a lot of arousal symptoms, such as hypervigilance, being on edge, irritability," Bellehsen said. "Animals can create a calming kind of presence that can counter some of those symptoms."
Zeus passed away from stomach cancer in 2015. A family from Minnesota donated a St. Bernard puppy, Zoey, to replace Gliba's beloved companion.
Zoey helps everybody in Gliba's circle, responding to their emotions, he said.
"She does it to everybody," Gliba said. "Whenever my girlfriend's upset, she goes over and does the same thing she does for me. The whole family gets the benefit of it."
Florida Atlantic University has more about C-PAWW.