Mike Dowling, a former U.S. Marine who served in Iraq on and off for 10 years, has witnessed first hand the benefit soldiers experience from having a dog around. His canine, Sgt. Rex, was deployed with him to look for bombs.
"Having a dog out there was therapeutic. It reminds them of home," Dowling said of his comrades. Dowling even wrote a book about Sgt. Rex, explaining the bond between a Marine and his working dog.
Just as Sgt. Rex was therapeutic for soldiers who encountered him overseas during everyday deployment life, some are finding there also are emotional benefits for unseen conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI) when soldiers return home. The latter is what Dowling called the "signature wound of our generation's veterans," resulting from brain-rattling explosions.
A wounded veteran at Walter Reed with a service dog and Hounds and Heroes founder Bonnie-Jill Laflin (right). (Photo: Hounds and Heroes)
That's why organizations like the California-based nonprofit Hounds and Heroes is launching an effort to help rescue dogs from shelters and provide them as therapy for veterans.
"We are saving a life ...and putting them with someone who needs the help as well," Bonnie-Jill Laflin, founder of Hounds and Heroes, said.
"The human-animal bond is a source of powerful healing"
Veterans Affairs only provides service dogs for qualified veterans who are blind, hearing impaired or how have another physical disability. In fact, a policy was instituted in 2012 specifically stating that the VA would not provide service dogs for therapeutic reasons. A study evaluating the effect of such dogs on PTSD was suspended late March after it was found to have produced some aggressive dogs and some of the canines were found inadequately cared for. Veterans already placed with dogs will continue in the study.
Others still advocate for the positive effects the dogs can have and support placing them with veterans, provided they receive proper training.
"American Humane Association's focus on animal-assisted therapy dates back to 1945 when we promoted therapy dogs as a means to help World War II veterans recover from the effects of war," American Humane Association President and CEO Dr. Robin Ganzert said in a statement last year. "We know from years of experience that the human-animal bond is a source of powerful healing, whether they are children suffering from cancer or military men and women who have suffered the stress of battle. Service dogs, in particular, are an amazing, positive resource for assisting our nation's best and bravest though their physical pain and mental anguish. We call on the VA and the United States Congress to stand up for our veterans and their families by continuing to reimburse veterans who suffer from PTSD for the cost of medically approved service dogs."
Wounded Warriors with a service dog and Laflin (right). (Photo: Hounds and Heroes)
How it works
For now, veterans wishing to have a therapy dog to help them cope with the symptoms of PTSD or TBI rely on organizations like Hounds and Heroes, among many others, to pair them up.
Hounds and Heroes is partnering with Rescue Me Incorporated to rescue dogs, train them and match them with veterans starting this summer.
Currently working out of Los Angeles, Laflin said they will be getting dogs from different shelters in the surrounding areas. The program will certify the dogs for public spaces and provide them training for tasks that can give the "veteran hero the FREEDOM he/she seeks," the Hounds and Heroes website explains.
Dowling said this freedom often includes an escape from the symptoms of PTSD and TBI, which can include paranoia, fear of being in large crowds, feeling isolated and sometimes having suicidal thoughts.
"Dogs can help with those symptoms because you are caring for something else...you have this animal that depends on you," Dowling said. "It helps them avoid dwelling on their own issues."
He said when he speaks with veterans about their interest in getting a dog, the most frequent answer is "yes."
Joy Nadel with Rescue Me Inc. said the program is working with those in the medical community already engaging with veterans suffering from PTSD and with the Wounded Warriors program. Although veterans can contact them directly about potentially getting a rescue dog, there are certain rules that will need to be met by candidates, Nadel said.
"There will be an interview with our training staff and the veteran to get to know he/she as so we can make sure to match up the right dog with the right veteran," Nadel wrote in an email to TheBlaze. "This is a very important part of the process as we need to make sure they work well together. On that note, the veteran assigned to the dog will have to go through a training program and learn the behaviors the dog knows to help them get through their every day lives. "
Candidates will need to have a note that they're working with a doctor and will need to be in a program that also medically treats their needs as well.
"Our main objective is to provide a service dog to each veteran in need so he/she can live a happy and productive life," Nadel said. "Then we as well need to make sure the dog we provide to each hero in need is going to be the right match for [them] and we need to make sure that the veteran in question is in a healthy enough state both physically and mentally to care for a dog."
In addition to rescuing dogs for veterans, Hounds and Heroes, which Laflin said also works to support other animal welfare and military charities, also rescues horses for therapeutic reasons.
Equine therapy at Camp Pendleton. (Photo: Hounds and Heroes)
Visit the Hounds and Heroes or Rescue Me Incorporated websites for more information. Veterans interested in getting a dog for therapeutic reasons from the program can contact Rescue Me Incorporated at 818-999-2400 or email@example.com.