This Veterans Day, discover the impact man's best friend can have on veterans
This #VeteransDay, discover the impact man's best friend can have on veterans
If Alex Rogers has a nightmare, Ava wakes him up by licking his face.
It isn’t the only time the two-year-old Boxer has helped the Army veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
He was directing people to a book fair on Grandparents’ Day at his kids’ school when he was about to have a panic attack. Only he didn’t realize it. His service dog did. She started jumping on him and licking him. Rogers laid down with Ava on top of him in the school office to help him breathe easier.
Rogers, 34, met Ava 10 months ago when he was on the verge of losing his family because of his PTSD. He found War Dogs Making it Home based in Roscoe Village online. The organization pairs veterans diagnosed with PTSD or traumatic brain injury with dogs rescued from high-kill shelters and trains the dogs to be service dogs.
“She came into my life in a desperate time and I did a 180 with her,” said Rogers, who lives in Colona near the Quad Cities. “We’re best friends now. I get to take her everywhere with me. Before her, I wouldn’t go anywhere by myself.”
It is easier for Rogers to go out in public and be around people with her. Since having foot surgery, she has been his crutch, acting as leverage to help him get up. He can drive to the city –- even if it’s six hours round trip for his dog training class -- and deal with traffic without getting anxious because Ava is by his side in the passenger seat.
“She saved my life and I saved hers,” he said.From lifesavers to cuddle buddies, veterans are turning to pets for company, comfort and care. But it can be pricey, costing hundreds to thousands of dollars in adoption, breeding, training fees and even a waitlist. Some agencies are trying to remove the barrier as a way of thanking veterans for their service. For example, the Anti-Cruelty Society in conjunction with the City Clerk’s Office last week waived the adoption fee for veterans, thanks to a $2,500 check from Fifth Third Bank, and PAWS Chicago is doing the same on Veterans Day.
Isis Ramirez, a Marine Corps reservist, took a peek at the dogs and cats at Anti-Cruelty, looking for a friend for her adopted German Shepherd named Bear. She refers to Bear as her therapeutic dog. They look into each other’s eyes – Ramirez calls it soul gazing. Sometimes, they’re couch potatoes together. At other times, they go on bike rides (OK, Bear runs alongside Ramirez’s bike.)
“It’s hard to leave him at home,” she said. “At home with him, it’s nice because he doesn’t expect anything from me except treats and hugs.”
Beyond waiving adoption fees, a number of organizations across the country match veterans with service dogs or companion dogs and train them at no cost to vets. Between 11 and 20 percent of veterans who have served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have PSTD in a given year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Pets for Vets works with veterans with PTSD or a traumatic brain injury, finds shelter dogs who, through a trainer, earn a certificate in the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen program and places the comfort dogs with vets, said Michele Quinn, Chicagoland chapter director.
Vets have shared stories about how their dogs have helped them with their anxiety and depression and made them more comfortable being outside of their homes, she said.
“What we’re finding is sometimes having a companion animal to keep them company – a lot of people like sleeping with the dog -- ... helps them tremendously,” she said.
The effect the comfort and service dogs have on veterans with PTSD is also the subject of the Veteran Affairs study. The intent of the study is to understand if it is efficacious and if it makes a difference to provide veterans with PTSD a service dog or an emotional support dog, said Dr. Patricia Dorn, director of rehabilitation research and development at the VA.
The study plans to gather evidence from 220 veterans from Atlanta, Iowa City and Portland on whether the dogs impact their quality of life, PTSD symptoms, depression, sleep, suicidal intent and employment. The study is expected to be completed in 2018, Dorn said.
The dogs in the study will have earned the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen program certification. Specifically, service dogs will be trained for five tasks: to bring or retrieve items such as keys or a pill bottle, to block so the dog positions himself in front of the veteran for safety, to walk behind the veteran, to enter a room or home first and bark if somebody is in there, and to turn on the lights by nudging the switch with its nose, Dorn said.
Eva Braverman, executive director of War Dogs Making It Home, is convinced of the power of service dogs. “We know it’s effective. We see it,” she said.
Since 2010, the organization has matched 37 veterans with service dogs, she said. Law firm Fox Rothchild donated $3,000 last week to help the charity carry out its mission.
“The dog gives them a battle buddy,” she said. Plus, the veterans get the camaraderie of being with other veterans during the two-year free training program.
Service dogs are allowed to go where the veteran goes.
"In their case, with our veterans who have PTSD, it’s really important the dog is with them all the time,” Braverman said. “It’s really an extension and lifeline for them.”
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