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Trained dogs help veterans suffering from PTSD

Nov. 13, 2012 - 09:16AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 13, 2012 - 09:16AM  |  
Paws and Stripes rescue dog, Battle, stands with Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Lawrence Montoya during a training session in Albuquerque, N.M. Through the help of the non-profit group, dogs are trained to help meet the fast-growing demand for free or affordable assistance dogs for vets like Montoya who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder.
Paws and Stripes rescue dog, Battle, stands with Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Lawrence Montoya during a training session in Albuquerque, N.M. Through the help of the non-profit group, dogs are trained to help meet the fast-growing demand for free or affordable assistance dogs for vets like Montoya who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder. (Jeri Clausing / The Associated Press)
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The medals are encased, the uniforms are tucked away.

Only after returning home to a hero's welcome, to the residence of all reminiscence while in Iraq or Afghanistan, do many veterans retreat, recoiling from the touch of spouses, the support of fellow soldiers.

An estimated one in five veterans deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001 has or will develop post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.

What these service men and women need is a service dog, said Debra Schaser, founder of Canine Hearing Companions in Vineland, N.J.

"They make them feel more secure to go out," said Schaser, who has been training service dogs since 1993. "Many of them are afraid to go, and having a dog makes them feel better."

Used traditionally for blind, deaf or physically disabled patients, service dogs have only recently been trained to perform tasks that can improve PTSD symptoms, such as create a buffer in public places or wake a veteran from a nightmare.

"A lot of them will have panic attacks, and the dogs will pick that up and lie on their chests until they calm down," Schaser says.

For their size, temperament and sociability, golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers make the ideal companions to PTSD veterans, said Rick Yount, owner of Warrior Canine Connection.

While veterans with PTSD may not take kindly to people urging them out of their social shells, they might not mind a service dog tugging at them, Yount says.

"The dogs don't trigger as much distrust," says Yount, a social worker who founded the Brookeville, Md., therapeutic service dog training program. "The dogs are uniquely able to facilitate relationships with service men."

Like many other dogs, a service dog will nudge and kiss its owner until it gets its way outside.

"Then the (option) to isolate is impossible," says Yount. "If you take a golden retriever or Labrador into the public, people are going to interact with you. They serve as social lubricant to reduce isolation."

After a few years of service, a year of captivity at the German camp Stalag Luft 1 and more than six decades in between, Irvin Stovroff saw the healing ability of a PTSD dog while volunteering at a hospital.

Although they would benefit from it, few veterans could afford to experience such companionship. That reality inspired Stovroff to create Vets Helping Heroes, a charitable foundation that raises money to provide service dogs to disabled veterans.

Despite his hardships, Stovroff, 90, sympathizes with today's soldiers.

"I felt I was a very fortunate veteran," says the Boca Raton, Fla. resident. "That after all the things I went through in combat, and as a prisoner of war, I came home in one piece. But these young guys who are returning, they never knew who the enemy was until they settled with the PTSD. They don't want anyone near or behind their back; they want to be alone."

The mental wound of PTSD is more clinically acknowledged than when he served, he said.

"It was called shell shock in World War I," he says. "In World War II, they didn't know what to do with it."

Some would argue the military still doesn't.

In September, Military Times reported that the Veterans Affairs Department has stopped placing service dogs with veterans as part of a much-anticipated study on the effectiveness of such dogs with helping to ease PTSD.

The study, which matched 17 veterans with assistance dogs, met with fits and starts since its launch in 2011. Of the three contracts signed with facilities to train and match animals and veterans, two were canceled in January. The third was suspended the same month, restarted in July and shut down again in August amid concerns over that facility's dogs.

Research will continue on the veterans and dogs already enrolled, but the broader study, which hoped to place 200 dogs, is largely on hold until VA's Office of Research and Development develops a new plan to continue, VA spokesman Josh Taylor said.

By raising more than $3 million, Vets Helping Heroes has given more than 70 veterans dealing with PTSD the same companionship Stovroff receives from his 5-year-old golden retriever, Cash.

Service dogs are individually trained to perform tasks for a specific person, surveying darkened rooms, turning on lights, re-orienting their owner during nightmares or flashbacks, detecting anxiety, navigating through crowds, enforcing boundaries for personal space.

Dogs trained to support vets with PTSD are considered service dogs under the American Disabilities Act, but they are not covered by VA benefits because the department says there is not enough scientific evidence to prove the effectiveness of dogs to treat and heal PTSD.

Training a service dog is not cheap, costing between $10,000 and $20,000 to protect a PTSD sufferer, about $25,000 to assist the disabled, and as much as $60,000 to lead the blind, says Strovoff, adding that only four out of 10 canines make it as a guide dog.

Schaser charges only $5,000 for a PTSD service dog, money that is usually provided through fundraising, she says.

The praise and patience demanded by these dogs help PTSD veterans foster the skills needed to raise children, Yount says.

"To train a dog, you have to use a lot of praise and high pitch and to deal with the emotional numbing," Yount says. "Here's a reason to pretend to sound happy because you need to sound happy to train a dog."

Having a dog rely on you and care for you evokes both "the healing power of the human-animal bond" and "the warrior ethos" in which you never leave anyone behind.

"Combine the two of them and it's really cool," Yount says.

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