Man’s best friend is loyal, protective, and fun. And in recent years, dogs are doing even more for a very specific group of Americans: veterans returning from active duty, many with invisible yet often deadly scars from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Whether it is with a loveable pet or a specially trained service dog, many organizations have taken up the mission of matching the right dogs with as many veterans as possible. Researchers are beginning to amass research that shows these types of pairings can help veterans sleep more soundly, have fewer startle reactions, reduce hyper-vigilant tendencies and depression, and even allow them to interact more easily with their family and friends.
Below are four great organizations that are helping veterans, helping dogs in shelters, and even helping retired military dogs. The work their volunteers, donors, and trainers are putting in to this movement is an urgent answer to the 22 veterans our country loses to suicide every day. Their hope is that by making these connections, veterans will find an easier road transitioning back into civilian life, with the help of a four-legged friend.
Paws for Purple Hearts: With the motto, “Veterans Helping Veterans,” this program not only provide service dogs to veterans living with combat injuries, but utilized other veterans to help train the dogs, specifically those suffering from PTSD that has not been successfully treated in other clinical settings. Under the guidance of instructors, these veterans undergo an intensive 18-to-24-month service dog training regimen with specially bred Golden and Labrador Retriever puppies. They learn more than 90 commands and once training is complete, the service dogs are given to veterans who have sustained mobility-limiting injuries. Veterans acting as trainers have seen substantial reduction in their PTSD symptoms and some even go on to pursue professional dog training certification.
Pets for Vets: This organization is a lifesaver for not only veterans but for the pets that are placed in homes, as organizers look to align veterans with animals in shelters. After an application process and in-person interview to learn more about the veteran’s needs, personality, and lifestyle, members of the organization make the perfect match with an animal currently in a shelter. The animal then lives with a trainer, learning obedience and other special skills to help them assimilate as a good pet into the veteran’s home, including comfort with a wheel chair, or behaviors needed to help with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). They are then placed in the home of the veteran to offer companionship and unconditional love that only a pet can provide.
K9s for Warriors: While pets can offer companionship and love, a true service dog completes a rigorous training program to learn skills to assist a person with specific needs. K9s for Warriors focuses exclusively on veterans suffering from PTSD and TBI from post-9/11 military service. The organization teaches their service dogs – mostly carefully selected rescue dogs – skills including: waking a veteran from a nightmare, intentionally distracting them during an anxiety episode, putting themselves between the veteran and an unwanted person getting too close, performing a sit/stay with back to the veteran to “watch their back,” trudging around a corner ahead of the veteran, and many more. Recipients of the service dogs spend time onsite to get to know and work with their matched dog, and many say their dog “saved their life.”
Mission K9 Rescue: At the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military had a force of roughly 2,500 military working dogs (MWDs) in service. Because of the stressful work and situations they often faced, MWDs were once viewed as “surplus military equipment,” not suitable for civilian life after retirement. Organizations like Mission K9 rescue work hard to honor these four-legged veterans by transporting them to their original military handler if they can and wish to adopt them, rehabilitate MWDs with PTSD symptoms to transition into civilian life with an adoptive family, and even raise funds to correct injuries caused by their heavily active years in the service. Since MWDs do not receive a formal “retirement,” having people striving to care for their well-being is valuable and gives them a chance at a calm, loving home in their golden years.
Written by Megan Hammons