RAPID RIVER, Mich. (WJMN) – Animals can play a key role in helping people cope with things like stress, anxiety, and depression. This can especially be true for veterans experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“The benefits of having a service dog, I mean overall, the biggest thing is independence. That’s what I hear from most people, regardless of what the disability is, independence is a big one,” said Katie Johnson, the president of Yooper Service Dogs, a non-profit in Rapid River that trains service dogs and skilled companions.

The story of how Johnson founded the non-profit starts from her own personal experiences. Johnson served in the Marine Corps from 2006 to 2016 in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just months after returning to the U.S., Johnson started showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Maybe four to six months or something after I came back from Afghanistan things were full-blown and they were getting bad. They were getting worse and worse and worse.”

During this time, she began pursuing a career in law enforcement. What she thought were just temporary feelings, turned into something much darker and deeper than she imagined.

“I became so empty. When I was there, I’d be at work and I’d have a good smile on my face and everything was good. Let’s go. And then it just took everything out of me to be that other person when I was at work that when I got home I had nothing left. The depression was pretty severe. I wouldn’t eat for days at a time. I almost thought ‘What’s the point of eating?'”

After admitting to herself that she needed help, Johnson was sent to the Wounded Warrior Battalion in North Carolina for treatment.

“I remember sitting there one time and just thinking like ‘There aren’t any soul surgeons here. Like this is not something human beings can help me with. This is beyond man’s ability.'”

Johnson was suggested to get a service dog to help her cope with her PTSD. That service dog was Coco, who helped Johnson do simple tasks like going to the grocery store. Something she wasn’t able to do before Coco.

“She could perform these various tasks like blocking and posting and things that help maintain personal space around you. So those various things were slowly kind of, it’s almost like that hypervigilance she was able to take some of that for me. It’s like I have somebody watching my back for me so I can focus on my grocery list a little bit “

When Johnson returned to Michigan from North Carolina people began to ask her how she received her service dog. Through her own research, she found that there weren’t any service dog organizations in the Upper Peninsula.

“I mean this is really something that kind of fell in my lap. There were definitely no plans for this. It went from there’s a need here and at first, I really felt inadequate to fill that need, honestly, I still feel inadequate to fill that need. But I guess it came down to somebody [having] to.”

In 2017, Johnson founded Yooper Service Dogs. Johnson has since retired Coco and finds herself no longer controlled by her PTSD. She hopes she can help others through the non-profit.

“There really is, there really is hope. There really is help out there. It really is possible to rise above your PTSD.”

If you or someone you know is in a crisis or needs to talk to someone, please call the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). 

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