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Dogs have a unique ability to comfort and heal in a way that most other animals can’t.

Nicole Lanahan knows this. She’s been a dog trainer for 20 years and seen firsthand the effect four-legged friends can have on the people around them. For the last two decades, Lanahan has trained service dogs, police dogs and military dogs alike – but in the last five years, began receiving inquiries about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) service dogs specifically.

“I was doing my best to refer them to other local organizations, but I’d hear back from [the caller] saying there was a five-year waiting list or [the organization] wanted to charge $20,000,” Lanahan recalls.

Lanahan’s final straw fell when a veteran called her crying, asking why Lanahan couldn’t help her.

“The next day, I went to my accountant and filed a 501(c)(3),” she says.

Thus, Got Your Six Support Dogs was born. Lanahan took a two-week workshop from This Able Veteran in Carbondale, Illinois. She was greatly “impressed and in awe” of its program and knew it was what she wanted to model Got Your Six after. (Incidentally, the name Got Your Six gives a nod to the military: It’s a phrase that was first used among fighter pilots in World War II. When airborne, they talked about where they were in relation to the hands of an analog clock, so “got your six” means “got your back.”)

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Got Your Six’s mission is to provide specialized service dogs to veterans and first responders suffering from PTSD and/or sexual trauma. With roughly 22 veterans nationwide committing suicide every day, according to a 2013 study by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, organizations like Got Your Six can help veterans relearn the basic human feelings they might have had to suppress in their time of service.

The nonprofit started with just Lanahan and a few volunteers and now has more than 100 volunteers. They currently place six dogs with veterans per year, with preference to local applicants – last year was 50 percent local, 50 percent elsewhere – and with a long-term goal to double that number to two classes of six dogs per year. Since its inception in 2015, Got Your Six has been able to place approximately 20 dogs with veterans and first responders.

To be considered for a support dog through Got Your Six, interested and eligible individuals are asked to fill out an extensive application that allows the group to get to know a given candidate. On the other end of the program, the organization’s dogs are trained for an entire year leading up to a possible pairing.

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“We know a [support dog] alone isn’t going to cure someone from PTSD,” Lanahan says. “They’re getting a whole toolbox to combat PTSD, not just a dog.”

Over a 10-day period, dogs are matched with individual applicants. The veterans attend a daily trauma resiliency/suicide prevention course during this 10-day period, led by a licensed therapist.

Pairing a candidate with a dog is a case-by-case matchmaking process. Lanahan says if an applicant is antisocial, he or she will be paired with an outgoing dog. If someone is considered rough around the edges, he or she will be paired with a more affectionate dog. If someone is fearful, he or she will be paired with a more confident dog.

“Opposites really do attract in this case,” Lanahan says.

Got Your Six mainly uses Labradors and golden retrievers as support dogs. The organization primarily works with breeders who have a history of breeding service dogs, but occasionally will work with and train rescue retrievers, too.

The group’s dogs are trained to help break down the barriers the veterans and first responders might have built over time. They have learned to perform medical tasks, awaken their owners during night terrors, do compression therapy, retrieve items like cellphones and remain alert to anxiety. Their training is tailored to their individual owners’ needs, so a dog will learn what the beginning of a particular person’s anxiety looks like to help recognize and de-escalate it.

This extensive training comes at a price, though. Each dog costs the organization approximately $20,000 to train, and Got Your Six relies on fundraisers, donations and grants to cover these hefty costs. One such fundraiser is its upcoming trivia night on Feb. 24. Although it’s sold out, Lanahan says the organization is always looking for silent auction items and donations to help cover the cost of providing dogs to veterans and first responders free of charge.

The 2018 pairing program will take place July 29 through Aug. 7, and applications must be received by June 15.

Got Your Six Support Dogs, 1099 F Beltline Road, No. 200, Collinsville, Illinois, 618-206-5015, gotyoursixsupportdogs.org

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Robyn is LN's digital editor and a staff writer. Proud alumna of Notre Dame High School in St. Louis and Eastern Illinois University. Avid coffee drinker, dog lover, concertgoer and word nerd.