AFF 2023: ‘By My Side’ illustrates impact of service dogs

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AFF 2023: ‘By My Side’ illustrates impact of service dogs
'By My Side' advocates for veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. (Courtesy photo)
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By Wafir Salih | wsalih@alextimes.com

“By My Side” is an award-winning documentary directed by Vicki Topaz and the late Wynn Padula. The film highlights the therapeutic benefits psychiatric service dogs can have on veterans diagnosed with PTSD.

The documentary opens with a veteran suffering from a panic attack in real time during the shoot. Mary Cortani, founder and director of Operation Freedom Paws, speaks softly to the man, helping guide his attention back to the dog at the end of the leash that he’s holding. The veteran’s quickened breathing begins to slow to a steadier pace as he pets the dog. The scene ends with the veteran saying “I love this dog,” as he addresses the dog directly saying, “Good boy, thank you for bringing me back,” culminating in an emotional scene which hooked everyone in the theater.

“By My Side” also delves into the impact PTSD can have on the veterans’ families. Accounts from their children and partners show how war trauma not only affects the veteran, but those closest to them upon returning home. Family members discuss the change in behavior when the veteran in their family returns home from war.

One of the most compelling aspects the documentary offers are the science-backed accounts weaved in throughout from neurobiology expert Meg Daley Olmert. At one point, Olmert provides an explanation on how Oxytocin – a hormone the brain releases during social bonding – is released when humans interact with dogs. Olmert says dogs also experience a release of this chemical when they interact with us, which explains why they’re able to understand our feelings so well.

There’s a pivotal moment in the documentary that shows how dogs are able to read the emotions of veterans. Ramon Reyes, a veteran, talks about a time when he was watching television and heard fireworks outside. The sudden sound immediately triggered memories of the battlefield, placing Reyes in a head space of panic and anxiousness.

As Reyes started to have an episode, his dog, Huey, pounced on him and started licking his face. Reyes was annoyed at first as he told his dog to stop, but then he realized Huey actually snapped him out of the panic and brought him back to reality.

“By My Side” ends with a call to action, with a note on how 1.8 million U.S. veterans suffer from some form of PTSD – and that they could all benefit from service dogs. The team hopes to raise awareness on the issue so Veterans Affairs can provide veterans with access to psychiatric service dogs at no additional cost.

The documentary is dedicated in memory of Wynn Padula, who served as co-director and cinematographer. Padula passed away suddenly from a heart attack on August 15, 2021, at 42.

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