Off Central: Valley group pairing dogs, veterans to save lives
PHOENIX — A Valley organization is committed to pairing up dogs with America’s finest who returned home from the battlefield with post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury.
“We customize the service dog to the veteran,” Karen Long, a trainer with Soldier’s Best Friend.
She said the dogs — many of which are taken from animal shelters — are trained to reduce the veteran’s stress.
“A lot of times, the dogs will start waking up the veterans from nightmares by licking them or pawing at them,” she said. “The dogs also automatically seem to do stress relief for the veterans, which frequently happens in public places. The dog will nudge them to help redirect back to the dog.”
Having a dog may seem trivial to some, but to a veteran struggling to cope, the animal can be a lifeline.
“A Vietnam veteran recently told me if it hadn’t been for the dog and getting into this program, he wouldn’t still be on the planet,” Long said.
Former Army medic Angel Silva of Phoenix was deployed for the first time at 18 years old. Over the next eight years, he served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He said his dog from Soldier’s Best Friend, Lucky, essentially lifted him out of a personal hell.
“Lucky has helped me with my PTSD,” he said. “I used to isolate myself.
“I’ve been out of the military for about 6 years now and it still likes I’ve barely transitioned out. I have short term memory loss, so it’s great to have Lucky because sometimes I forget to take my meds. I put treats next to my meds so, if I forget to take them, Lucky doesn’t forget it’s time for his treats. He’ll be sitting there saying, ‘Take your medicine because I want my snack.'”
Silva said he would shut himself away and drink to deal with his PTSD. Lucky changed that.
“I would go weeks or months without going outside except to get the basic essentials. It was isolation and a lot of drinking, to be honest, a lot of self-medication,” he said.
“But since I’ve had Lucky, starting in October, the drinking is more social like a beer during the Super Bowl than medication. You can’t be drinking like that and still function when it comes to taking him for a walk and the training.”
A veteran and a dog will train together for six to nine months for at lease one hour per day to build a trusting relationship that can literally save two lives at once.
“Sometimes, the veterans and service dogs go to the grocery store or restaurant, sometimes to the mall or the airport,” Long said. “It’s a vigorous training process and it’s not easy.
“About two dozen veterans commit suicide each day, so if we can help prevent that from happening, we help not only the veterans and the shelter dogs but families as well,” Long said. “We’ve graduated about 160 teams so far and about 100 of the dogs were rescued from shelters.”
John Burnham, a veterinarian with 34 years of experience, founded Soldier’s Best Friend in 2011. He is not a veteran, but his father served in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He holds a great respect for our military men and women.
“The veterans now have a living creature they can trust,” he said. “I can’t imagine what they went through because I didn’t walk the streets of Baghdad or other areas of the Middle East facing an enemy that didn’t wear a uniform.”
He said hearing from struggling veterans was the motivation he needed to found the program.
“I can tell you story after story about what these veterans are dealing with,” he said. “They’re on [Interstate]-10 and come up on the Deck Park Tunnel and they can’t go through it. They stop on the freeway. They see a cable counter across the roadway and will veer around it because they’re thinking it’s an IED.”
Soldier’s Best Friend is a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation. The board and staff are comprised of war veterans, practicing PTSD therapists, professional service dog trainers, veterinarians, experienced nonprofit professionals, and many volunteers.
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