Four-Legged Therapy for Military Veterans with PTSD

Therapy Dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Several hundred thousand U.S. military veterans are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) each year. It has been shown that many of the most distressing symptoms experienced by combat veterans can be eased by the presence of a specially trained therapy dog.
  • The Veterans Administration currently does not provide service dogs for vets with PTSD, unless they also have a vision, hearing or mobility problem.
  • Fortunately, there are organizations across the U.S. that have realized the enormous value of therapy dogs for PTSD sufferers and are raising money to provide more dogs to more U.S. military veterans.

By Dr. Becker

From 300,000 to 400,000 U.S. veterans are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) each year. As is the case with any illness, diagnosis is just the first step in a long journey back to wholeness.

There are many types of treatments for veterans with PTSD. One of the most recently discovered therapies – one that also happens to be safe, effective and all natural – involves the pairing of specially trained therapy dogs with PTSD vets.

According to Military Times, service dogs have only recently been trained to perform tasks that can help PTSD sufferers. These include creating a buffer in public places, waking a veteran from a nightmare, or lying on the chest of someone having a panic attack until the person calms down.

Rick Yount, founder of Warrier Canine Connection in Brookeville, Maryland, believes Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers make ideal companions for PTSD veterans due to their size, temperament and sociability. According to Yount, a social worker, dogs don’t trigger distrust in vets with PTSD. “The dogs are uniquely able to facilitate relationships with service men,” he says.

The presence of the dog makes it impossible for a person to isolate while out in public. The dogs “serve as social lubricant to reduce isolation,” says Yount.

Unfortunately, the Veterans Administration only provides service dogs to vets with vision, hearing or mobility problems. But the good news is several organizations are helping to bridge the gap with programs that match therapy dogs with the ever-growing number of U.S. military veterans suffering from severe service-related PTSD. The following are just a few of those groups.

Veterans K-9 Solutions

Jerry Lyda of Veterans K-9 Solutions in Augusta, Georgia, is matching shelter dogs on kill lists with veterans in three counties. Richmond County alone puts 70 percent of its shelter animals to death, as does Augusta Animal Services, so the matching program is helping to save canine lives.

According to The Augusta Chronicle, Veterians K-9 Solutions is “reinventing how war heroes and service dogs find new life and purpose in the Southeast.”

Lyda, who has been training dogs since age 12, is a Vietnam vet who served in the U.S. Navy. “Our love for dogs and gratitude towards those who served makes our goal simple – give back to those in need by saving two lives at a time,” he says.

Lyda trains dogs at a farm in Augusta, but unlike other service dog training programs, this one requires the involvement of the dog’s new owner right from the start. Many of the veterans who are matched with therapy dogs have trouble eating, sleeping and going out in public to places as seemingly benign as the local supermarket. Lyda believes his program brings immediate relief to PTSD sufferers by exposing them to new experiences throughout the training process with the dog.

Not only are the dogs trained to bring a soldier out of a flashback, sense an approaching panic attack, and dial 9-1-1, they also help to restore veterans’ sense of responsibility, optimism and self-awareness. In fact, caring for a dog can reduce PTSD sufferers’ need for anti-anxiety medications.

Dr. John Rigg, director of the Traumatic Brain Injury program at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon, Georgia, is the person who encouraged Lyda to start his program.

Veterans K-9 Solutions is certified through the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen program and is awaiting IRS approval for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. Lyda and Rigg have gained the cooperation of various veteran outreach organizations, animal shelters, police trainers, grant writers and lawyers. Once the organization receives IRS approval, Lyda will begin canvassing to match dozens of qualified veterans to dogs.

Lyda is optimistic about his mission. “I can’t help every veteran,” he said. “But if I can give at least one a new friend to help them overcome their fears or anxieties, then I have reached my goal.”

Paws for Patriots

Bob Steele, also a Vietnam veteran and former Marine, was finally diagnosed with PTSD just two years ago.

"We're fighting machines. We're killing machines, and then we're put on a plane, flown back and we're in the airport with a bag by ourself. And, for years and years and years, no one recognized our problem," Steele said.

Steele hasn’t had much of a life since returning from Vietnam, and in fact, he reached the point where he no longer left the house and lost many of his friends. But recently he found a new best friend in Dillon, a Golden Retriever provided by Paws for Patriots. Miraculously, within just a few days Steele was enjoying life again like he hadn’t in several decades.

Feeling threatened when someone enters their personal space is a common PTSD-related response for soldiers returning from combat. Dillon has been trained to help Steele preserve his personal space when he’s out in public.

Vets Helping Heroes

Vets Helping Heroes was created by Irvin Stovroff, a 90 year-old WWII veteran and prisoner of war who saw the healing ability of a therapy dog while volunteering at a hospital.

Stovroff realized that most vets with PTSD who could benefit from a service dog cannot afford one, so he founded Vets Helping Heroes, a charity that raises money to provide service dogs to disabled vets. The organization has raised more than $3 million and provided therapy dogs for more than 70 veterans with PTSD.

The dogs are trained to perform specific tasks to meet the individual needs of their owners, which can include surveying darkened rooms, turning on lights, bringing a person out of a nightmare or flashback, detecting anxiety, navigating through crowds, and enforcing personal space boundaries.

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