Not long ago, I led an animal shelter’s animal assisted therapy program designed to help veterans re-integrate after returning from a tour of duty.
One group included a young man who had enrolled in college after serving in the Middle East, but who struggled to relate to the other students. He was around the same age as them, but their experiences were vastly different. His sense of isolation led him to feel lonely and angry (and who could blame him?).
Over time, as he worked with us to train dogs, his focus shifted from what made him feel different to what was rewarding to him – helping the shelter dogs. Because the dogs accepted him unconditionally, and because they gave him a sense of purpose, he eventually began to feel more comfortable in his own (new) skin.
It was a turning point for this young man, and not an isolated or unusual story by any means. In a 2005 survey of psychiatric service dog handlers, 82 percent of the respondents with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) who had a psychiatric service dog reported a decline in symptoms. Another 40 percent reported that they took less medication as a result of their partnership with their dog.
According to the National Center for PTSD, pets bring with them a number of emotional benefits that range from taking orders when trained – a plus for veterans used to giving commands – to providing a reason to get out of the house and meet new people. In addition, they help alleviate anxiety symptoms that often make it difficult to function in public.
Because of those recognized and documented benefits, there are a number of structured programs throughout the U.S. that link veterans with animals. One of them is Stiggy’s Dogs, headquartered in Howell, Mich.
With the motto “rescuing one to rescue another,” the nonprofit organization rescues and trains shelter dogs to be psychiatric service dogs for military veterans living with PTSD or traumatic brain injury (TBI). Services are provided at no cost to the veteran.
Donna Fournier, director of training for the organization, says that improved self confidence is usually the first thing trainers see in the veterans matched with a dog for training that can take from six months to a year.
“They go from being intimidated by crowds or groups to thinking, ‘I’ve got this,’ ” she says.
Another benefit of the veteran-dog partnership is the sense that each has a buddy.
“Service members are taught in the military to count on the person next to them. They don’t have that support when they return home, but a trained dog can provide that security,” Fournier says.
There are other groups besides Stiggy’s Dogs that connect pets with veterans, including:
- Warrior Canine Connection, which uses animal therapy to help wounded veterans
- Paws for Veterans, which provides veterans task-trained service dogs, supplies, therapeutic group sessions, and alternative treatments for PTSD, TBI, and related conditions
- K9s for Warriors, which also provides dogs to veterans suffering from PTSD and TBI
At this time of the year, as we think about honoring service members on Veteran’s Day, what we’re thankful for at Thanksgiving, and giving holiday gifts with meaning, why not consider making a donation to one of these or other organizations serving our wounded warriors? A donation in the name of a friend could be the best gift possible for a rescue pet, a veteran, and your friend.
Do you have a favorite nonprofit that provides veterans with service animals? Tell us about it in a comment.