Healing Heros  

Posted by — Kim in , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Here's a great article that I thought I would pass on...hope you find it interesting! –Kim

Canines Contribute to Long-term Care of Wounded War Veterans
By Lauren Lewis Innocenzi

The National Defense Authorization Act for 2010 has been approved by both the House and Senate. The act incorporates the Service Dogs for Veterans Act and includes a provision that instructs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to partner with nonprofit organizations to conduct "a three-year study to assess the benefits, feasibility and advisability of using service dogs for the treatment or rehabilitation of veterans with physical or mental injuries or disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder." The provision is backed by Senators Al Franken (D-MN) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Representatives Ron Klein (D-FL) and Ed Whitfield (R-KY).

Two weeks after taking office in July, U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) joined with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) to introduce the Service Dogs for Veterans Act that would set up a pilot program within the Department of Veterans Affairs to pair service dogs with veterans who have physical or mental wounds, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In an opinion piece in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune dated July 18, Franken wrote, "Frankly, I believe it is enough simply to improve the lives of those of whom we asked so much. But this program isn't just the right thing to do. It's the smart thing to do. This is win, win, win, win."

Whether or not one agrees with Franken's politics, his assessment that service dogs provide immense benefits to vets suffering from physical and emotional wounds is difficult to dispute.

An estimated 400,000 vets are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD and/or traumatic brain injury (TBI), according to Gloria Gilbert Stoga, president and founder of Puppies Behind Bars (PBB), whose Dog Tags program was established in 2006 to provide service dogs to veterans returning home from these countries who have physical injury, TBI or PTSD.

"The number of wounded veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical and invisible wounds is huge," Stoga says. "To get these men and women reengaged in society is both something that is good for them and something that we as a Country owe those who have fought on our behalf."

Stoga's organization has paired 15 service dogs with veterans so far and plans to pair up to eight more in 2009 and an additional 15 to 20 next year. The dogs are trained in 87 commands, which include everything from opening doors, turning on and off lights, and picking up objects and giving them to the veterans. In addition, canines are also taught special commands created especially for veterans. "These include blocking access in case the veteran gets concerned when someone is approaching; looking both ways before entering a room so the veteran knows it is safe to enter that room; and dialing 911 on a telephone if the veteran needs help and cannot call for it himself. Our dogs are also taught to find the veteran's car in a crowded parking lot," says Stoga.

Isaiah Schaffer, a 25-year-old United States Marine Corps corporal who served in Iraq, was paired with a service dog from Dog Tags last November. "I was very bad off with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. My mom realized this and had heard about [the program]. I was instantly on board with the idea," he says.

Schaffer's story is not uncommon among war veterans. After returning home, he had trouble readjusting to life outside of the military. "My life was full of loneliness, depression, and a constant home theater system in my head of the constant horrors of war," he says in a letter of gratitude he recently wrote to PBB. Schaffer explains that he was fearful of the world, so much so that he reached a point where he was afraid to leave his apartment.

But things changed once he met his service dog, a chocolate Lab named Meghan. Schaffer says Meghan encourages him every day and has helped him reclaim his confidence. "Since Meghan, I have not only regained my freedom and come to be able to function in this world I was once so fearful of, but I have also gained a best friend," he says.

Most recently, Meghan has played a major role in helping Schaffer transition into fatherhood. He recounts a story of being home for the first night with his newborn daughter when she began to cry violently. "My hands became sweaty, and my heart began to pump fast, and I shook and froze.

These sounds reminded me of a battle I was in where a newborn was left in the streets where none of us could get to her because of the intense firefight. I looked down at Meghan for an instant, and it was like she read my mind. And just with a wag of her tail and a look I felt she was telling me, You got this. You're fine.' With that I scooped up my daughter and sang her to sleep."

In addition to helping repair emotional wounds, service dogs also assist veterans who have been physically injured. "For those that have experienced hearing loss, they can be at home by themselves and be confident that the dog will alert them to a ringing doorbell, smoke alarm, or teakettle boiling over. For those that use a wheelchair, the assistance dog can pick up dropped items that they cannot reach, turn a light switch on or off, carrying items for them, or pull their wheelchair," explains Jeanine Konopelski, national director of marketing communications for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). "Assistance dogs allow people to be out in the workforce again, go to school, or even just go out to dinner without having to rely on another person to be with them to help with daily physical tasks."

CCI was formed in 1975 and has since paired more than 3,000 assistance dogs with people with disabilities. Its Wounded Veteran Initiative has partnered more than 60 dogs with those who have served in the military, including Jeffrey Adams, a first lieutenant with the Louisiana Army National Guard. In Nov. 2004, Adams was wounded by a roadside bomb while on patrol in Baghdad. Most of his left leg had to be amputated. Today he walks with a prosthetic titanium leg with help from his assistance dog, Sharif.

"Prior to my involvement [with CCI], I knew of various types of law-enforcement dogs, dogs for the hearing disabled, and dogs for the blind, but I was unaware of all the other types of companions that are out there," Adams says. "Other than the tasks that Sharif helps me do, as well as the ones he helps me do safely, there are endless amounts of good things to say about being able to take a well-trained machine and your dog out in public and to work every day."

Organizations such as PBB and CCI provide service dogs at no cost to veterans. However, the price isn't negligible. For example, the cost of a CCI assistance dog can exceed $45,000, including breeding, training, placement, and follow-up services for the life of the dog. The cost to PBB is $26,000 for every Dog Tags team (wounded warrior and dog). Both groups rely entirely on donations from their supporters to fund the programs.

The Service Dogs for Veterans Act could help provide needed financial assistance. As it stands, the bill would require the Veterans Administration (VA) to coordinate with nonprofit organizations to pair at least 200 service dogs and veterans. The VA would also be required to pay the full cost for the first 50 dogs and share costs for the next 150. A pilot study for three years will determine the efficiency and therapeutic benefits.

Although CCI has some problems with the Service Dogs for Veterans Act (namely, it does not believe that a pilot program and feasibility study is needed to show the benefits of assistance dogs), Konopelski says the organization is looking forward to working with Sen. Franken to refine the legislation to include financial measures that would stimulate more availability for veterans. Specifically, CCI would like the act to grant accredited organizations $10,000 per veteran placed with a trained assistance dog to cover expenses. "In addition, we feel the proposed legislation by Sen. Franken should address the issues of compensation for veterans' travel expenses to and from the training location and the other incidental costs of having a dog for 8 to 10 years," says Konopelski.

Even if legislation aimed to help service dog initiatives for veterans isn't passed, the need for these programs will continue to increase as injured soldiers return home from war. Whether the soldiers' wounds are physical or emotional, the benefits that service dogs can provide these men and women are profound. For Corporal Isaiah Schaffer, a service dog provided him with a second chance. "[It] has helped me to regain my life back," he says. "I am no longer just a broken vet. I have a life; I can finally function in society."

At a Glance

America's VetDogs (Veteran's K-9 Corps)
—Branch of Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, Inc. that provides service dogs for visually impaired veterans.

Canines for Combat Veterans
—Program of Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans/NEADS that serves any combat veteran whose service injury has resulted in deafness or disability.

Canine Companions for Independence: Wounded Veteran Initiative
—Initiative through CCI, the largest assistance-dog organization in the world, pairs dogs with veterans who have been disabled in combat.

Dog Tags: Service Dogs for Those Who've Served Us
—Established by Puppies Behind Bars to provide service dogs to veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan who have a physical injury, TBI or PTSD.

Operation Hero Hounds
—Celebrity dog trainer Tamar Geller's program to help veterans focus on emotional healing for nonvisible ailments such as PTSD and TBI through training dogs in need of behavior modification.

Service Dogs for Veterans Act
—A proposed bill that would require the secretary of Veterans Affairs to carry out a pilot program to assess the feasibility and advisability of using service dogs for the treatment or rehabilitation of veterans with physical or mental injuries or disabilities and for other purposes.

Source: http://www.tailsinc.com/index.php?action=getArticle&aid=542
Copyright 2008 Tails Pet Media Group, Inc.

Also, see: Dogs that Make a Difference

This entry was posted on Monday, November 16, 2009 at Monday, November 16, 2009 and is filed under , , , , , , , , , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


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