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Fighting for freedom: Service dogs help survivors overcome limitations

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jazmin Smith
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
Like many others during the school year, Stephanie Shipwash, a graduate assistant at the University of Central Missouri, can be seen maneuvering around the masses on campus, with one little difference.

Steadfast at her side throughout the day, with a brindle coat and bright eyes peeled, is a service dog named Gabbie.

The Dutch Shepherd/Labrador mix came into Shipwash’s life only a month ago, and it is through Gabbie’s constant companionship that Shipwash has been able to truly move forward with her life.

During her enlistment in the U.S. Air Force, Shipwash was a victim of sexual assault, causing her to experience many disabling conditions that intensified her depression and anxiety.

She wore a mask to hide her pain and suffering from what she had been through, said Shipwash.

“I was, and still am, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe anxiety disorder, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, and I was beginning to not want to leave my home,” said Shipwash. “I couldn’t be in crowds – and the definition of a crowd was getting smaller and smaller.

“To this day, I still have night terrors, insomnia and eating disorders – many of the things sexual assault survivors experience, unfortunately,” added Shipwash.

However, in January 2017, she heard about something life-changing.
Only a month prior to being medically retired from the Air Force, Shipwash learned of a program in Liberty, Missouri, which matched veterans who battle PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI) with a service animal: The Warriors’ Best Friend Foundation.

“I can get my life back.”

These were the first six words that crossed her mind, and she immediately inquired on her chances of getting matched with one of their animals.

But before Gabbie came into her life, there was a lot of time and work Shipwash had to invest into healing.

After pushing to go to the Stress, Trauma, Addictions, and Recovery (STAR) Program at the Research Psychiatric Center in Kansas City, Shipwash got much of the help she needed before taking Gabbie home in March.

“It was the best thing I could have done,” said Shipwash. “It helped me to transition from victim to survivor and eventually let go of all the anger I was holding on to.”

The STAR program helped tremendously, she said. She learned how to acknowledge and move past the resentment she had held for so long, so she could move on with her life with Gabbie’s help.

“I was really limited in what I could do in life before Warriors’ Best Friend and Gabbie came into my life,” said Shipwash.

Whenever Shipwash experiences a night terror, Gabbie is there to comfort her. She now no longer has to take medications to get through them since Gabbie’s calming presence makes her feel safer.

“When I get frustrated, Gabbie has learned to get in my lap and calm me down,” said Shipwash. “She is learning my triggers and behaviors and how to calm me down and bring me out of my moment.”

Warriors’ Best Friend Foundation has two important missions: provide highly trained service dogs for veterans battling PTSD and/or TBI at no cost to the veteran and demonstrate the potential value rescue dogs have to positively impact the lives of America’s wounded veterans.

“To address this mission, Warriors’ Best Friend partners with local animal shelters across the United States to identify canines that possess a certain set of characteristics necessary to become a service dog,” said Samantha Jeffers, the Warriors’ Best Friend Foundation director of development. “Warriors’ Best Friend is one of only a handful of organizations that only adopts rescue dogs for their program and, in doing so, provides a second chance for two lives with every service dog placement we make.”

The non-profit organization teaches its dogs 25 commands – three of which designate the dog as an animal trained to specifically assist someone, like Shipwash, who has been diagnosed with PTSD.

Medical studies prove that service dogs can speed up a service member’s recovery, both physically and emotionally, and unlike other treatments, they provide a lifetime of assistance and companionship.

“During their five to six months of training, each of the dogs in the program train in restaurants, retail stores and crowded environments to prepare for when they are placed with their veteran,” said Jeffers. “When a dog is fully trained, they are made available for placement.”

They are taught verbal and nonverbal commands, both of which Shipwash continues to use.

“Handler training is a nine-day period where a veteran learns all of their dog’s commands and how to lean on their dog for assistance and support when faced with various stressors and triggers,” she added.

“Apart from the use of learned commands to ease the symptoms of PTSD and TBI, bonding with a service dog has biological effects such as elevated levels of the hormone oxytocin,” said Jeffers. “Oxytocin improves trust, the ability to interpret facial expressions, the overcoming of paranoia and other pro-social effects.

“Service dogs have also been known to help adjust serotonin levels, lower blood pressure, and helps with episodes of depression,” she added.

After a little more than a month, Shipwash isn’t the only one who has noticed a difference.

“My mom and friends have noticed I’m happier and more willing to go out in public,” said Shipwash. “I’m more comfortable in my job, and I feel much safer at home and in the open.”

In an effort to employ similar benefits for members of Team Whiteman, there is a new member joining the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) office on base.

Around the end of May, the SAPR office is slated to receive a full-time therapy dog. Wearing a tuxedo-black coat and golden eyes, Apollo will be able to provide any emotional support a member of Team Whiteman may need – or if you just want to visit, he’s all ears.

“The entire SAPR team is truly looking forward to having Apollo on board to support not only survivors of sexual assault, but all of our Whiteman community,” said Amy Creighton, the 131st Bomb Wing Sexual Assault Response Coordinator. “He is a kind and quiet soul that we think will be an amazing asset to our program.”

As for Shipwash and Gabbie, the duo is looking forward to a brighter future where she can be free of the chains of PTSD and anxiety and have the freedom to take off the mask she's worn for so long, said Shipwash.

"Gabbie is giving me the freedom to be more independent and more myself again," remarked Shipwash. "We are looking forward to moving away from Missouri once I finish grad school, starting a whole new life, and leaving this one behind.

"We will live a life of helping people who have gone through similar situations like myself and showing them they too can break free from those chains," added Shipwash. "I now look forward to the future more than ever because I know Gabbie is right here with me, and we make a great team."

If you, or someone you know could benefit from talking with someone from the SAPR team or a victim's advocate, they can be reached at any time by calling 660-687-7272.

For more information on the Warriors' Best Friend Foundation, feel free to visit their website at