Recently, Michael O’Keefe from Consumer Advocates contacted me with an article on service dogs for veterans and asked that we publish it on our blog. I don’t often respond to such requests, but this one was especially impactful and I am happy to publish excerpts here. Treating PTSD requires specialized training and services. Sadly, there aren’t enough resources for people with PTSD, and veterans in particular have been left behind in adequate care. Service dogs can be an especially powerful part of recovery for people with PTSD. September is National Service Dog Month.
Bay Area Mental Health specializes in treating trauma and PTSD. For a free consultation please complete the form at the end of the article to contact us.
For the original article please visit K9s for Warriors.
BECAUSE TOGETHER WE STAND…
By Scott Smith, July 14th, 2018
Her senses were always up, in a constant state of fight or flight, ever since that day in May of 2012. Tiffany Baker, an Army National Guard soldier, was traveling in a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle while stationed in Afghanistan when it hit a 250-pound IED. The bomb was so powerful, it rolled the heavily-enforced vehicle.
Baker sustained major physical injuries, requiring four hip surgeries the next year. She also suffered a traumatic brain injury because of the attack. “I was taking 17 medications between being overseas and then coming back,” says Baker. She was frequently going to the VA, seeing a counselor, psychiatrists, and psychologists. “They were constantly giving me medications.” She was feeling more and more isolated.
In February 2015, Baker medically retired, saying goodbye to her unit, the 1157 Transportation Company. That same year, she met Buddy through K9s For Warriors.
Buddy had been badly abused and neglected by his owner. Before being rescued, he was found tied to a tree without any food or water. “K9s For Warriors is great at pairing the dog with veterans,” says Baker. She explains that Buddy always covers her back. He’s “got her 6”, and he creates a safe barrier between her and other people, allowing her to function in public.
Just as Buddy is my service dog, I am Buddy’s service human.
-Tiffany Baker, K9s For Warrior graduate and advocate
Baker was so taken with Buddy and the K9s For Warriors program that she got involved in supporting the PAWS (Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members) Act of 2017 that got the VA on board with service dogs helping veterans. The bill directs the VA to carry out a five-year pilot program, providing grant funding to qualifying nonprofits that provide service
dogs to military members or veterans who suffer from PTSD after they finalize other traditional treatments.
Baker actually spoke at a press conference in support of the act. “Going into the public was very difficult,” says Baker. “I’m always watching over my back.”
But Buddy has helped Baker to get back out into the public. Tiffany graduated this past May from Waukesha County Technical College with a degree in business management, and an emphasis in social media marketing. As Baker puts it, she is like every other broken person whose service dog keeps them going. She says, “I need to get out of bed to take care of him.”
The two rescued each other.
MEET JAMES AND DUNKIN
James Rutland is a 12-year Army veteran who served a tour of duty in Iraq in 2004, followed by two more tours in South Korea. He left the military in 2014, suffering from multiple medical conditions related to his service, including mild traumatic brain injury (TBI), sleep apnea, and hearing loss, to name a few.
Most importantly, he suffered from depression and often thought about suicide. Thinking he could do it alone, Rutland tried healing from the trauma on his own. That wasn’t working. “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got,” says Rutland.
In 2016, Rutland finally rounded the bend of recovery when he was paired with his service dog, Dunkin. “I started focusing on “we instead of “me”, says Rutland.
He has a semi-colon tattoo on his right wrist, a known symbol of taking a pause when thinking about suicide. Unlike a “period” which ends a sentence, the semicolon creates a pause, for the reader, then continues the story. Rutland wears it proudly. “It’s a great conversation starter,” Rutland says.
He goes on to explain that breathing, family, friends, and the program that gave him Dunkin are what keeps him going.
STATISTICS ON PTSD
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 10% of our veterans are diagnosed with PTSD. Almost 3 million veterans have been deployed since 9/11. That means that there are approximately 300,000 veterans with PTSD, many of whom have not been treated and continue to suffer in silence.
PTSD is classified as a mental disorder that develops after a person experiences severe trauma as a result of a traumatic event such as warfare, sexual assault, auto accident, or other severely traumatic events. PTSD symptoms are re-experiencing, avoidance, arousal, and negative changes in beliefs and feelings. The disability manifests itself in depression, anxiety, night terrors, and social embarrassment resulting in isolation. Many individuals have initial symptoms while others can worsen, requiring treatment.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, it is common to have reactions such as upsetting memories of an event, increased anxiety, or trouble sleeping after experiencing a traumatic event. If these reactions do not go away or worsen, then the individual may have PTSD.
PILOT STUDY AFFIRMS ANTICIPATED OUTCOME
K9s For Warriors (see “Resources” below) recently partnered with Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine on a pilot study testing the effectiveness of service dogs as a complementary treatment for military members and veterans who suffer from PTSD. Dr. Maggie O’Haire, assistant professor of human-animal interaction, along with Kerri E. Rodriguez, research assistant, conducted the study and published the findings earlier this year.
The study had a total of 141 participants from the K9s For Warriors’ program or individuals on the program’s waiting list. Half of the program’s participants had service dogs; the other half did not.
The study found that PTSD symptoms were significantly lower in veterans with service dogs, demonstrating that service dogs are associated with lower PTSD symptoms among war veterans. “The initial findings showed lower depression, lower PTSD symptoms, lower levels of anxiety, and lower absenteeism from work due to health issues,” says Dr. O’Haire.
Other key findings (in a related study) included a significant reduction in suicidal thoughts, required medication, night terrors, and an increase of three to four more hours of sleep per night. That is, in part, due to the fact that the service dogs are trained to wake up the warriors when experiencing night terrors. Purdue University is currently studying this behavior and although it hasn’t been substantiated scientifically..
RESOURCES FOR VETERANS:
K9s For Warriors is an organization located in Ponte Vedra, Florida, that has been pairing rescues dogs with traumatized soldiers since 2011. The dogs are trained to be service dogs, specifically performing tasks to quiet the symptoms of war trauma disabilities in soldiers.
“The skillsets our dogs learn help these warriors with anxiety, isolation, depression, and nightmares,” says Shari Duval, the founder of K9s For Warriors. “So, the warriors can function again in public.”
“K9s For Warriors sees it as two battles: fighting the past of the dog and fighting the past of the warrior. We’re saving two lives here.”
Operation Freedom Paws, with locations in Gilroy, California and San Martin, California is a volunteer organization that rescues dogs from shelters and then trains them together with the veteran over the course of6 months.
They aim to train clients to train a service dog to meet their needs. Their motto is “Four Paws, Two Feet, One Team”
Pets for Vets is a volunteer, nationwide organization that matches companion animals with veterans. A companion animal is not as comprehensively trained as service animal, but can provide some of the same benefits to veterans suffering from PTSD. “When a Veteran is matched with the right pet, both lives change for the better. The Veteran saves the animal and welcomes him/her into a loving home. The pet provides the Veteran with unconditional love and support, easing stress, depression, loneliness and anxiety. Together, they share a Super Bond™ that provides them both with a whole new “leash” on life.” ~Pets for Vets website
Bay Area Mental Health specializes in treating trauma and PTSD. For a free consultation please complete the form below to contact us.