Rensselaer Co. veteran with PTSD receives therapy dog

Posted at: 08/17/2013 11:58 PM
Updated at: 08/18/2013 12:42 PM
By: Steve Flamisch

COLONIE -- A Rensselaer County combat veteran received a therapy dog Saturday to help him cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Jeremy Walton, 28, beamed as he greeted Alana, a chocolate Labrador retriever who flew with her trainer from Washington state to Albany International Airport.

"I haven't smiled like this in years," Walton, a retired corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps, told NewsChannel 13. "Another one of the best days of my life."

Walton, a California native who now lives in Castleton, served eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps and two tours of duty in Iraq. He said roadside bombs left him with a traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

Even with his wife and young daughter by his side, Walton said he became reclusive, started drinking, and tried to kill himself several times.

"It got to the point where I hit an all-time low," Walton said. "It tore everything that I loved and cared about away from me."

The turning point came several months ago when one of Walton's friends recommended that he get a service dog. At the time, Walton had just started volunteering for STRIDE Adaptive Sports, a Rensselaer-based non-profit that helps disabled people.

STRIDE's founder and executive director, Mary Ellen Whitney, contacted Timothy McDonough, another retired combat veteran who happens to train service dogs.

"I called Tim and said, 'Listen, I have this young man who's pretty much where you were a couple of years ago and he could really benefit from a dog,'" Whitney said. "Tim would never say no to me. He just was absolutely like, 'I'll work on it.' And it didn't take long."

McDonough, who lived in Germantown before relocating to Washington state, knew just which dog to pick. Alana was the last in an "accidental litter" of eight puppies from Missouri.

"One of the puppies didn't make it, and all of the other seven of that eight are service dogs," said McDonough, who served for more than 20 years in the U.S. Navy and the New York Air National Guard. "They were such a phenomenal group. We took them from puppies back in January to now. Alana's the last being paired with her veteran."

Service dogs like Alana -- and McDonough's own dog Bailey -- are specially trained to calm veterans and to wake them from the night terrors often associated with PTSD.

For Walton, who is now going through a divorce, Alana may succeed where medication and therapy did not.

"This is definitely a new direction for me, which is what I've been needing for years now," he said.