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Training Dogs for Service: Helping Veterans Cope with Distress

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A man holds a puppy

“A lot of Veterans with PTSD tend to isolate. They don’t engage. They build a defensive wall around themselves so they can feel safe. But dogs have an ability to shatter that wall. They’re friendly and non-judgmental. They invite interaction.” — Sandra Carson of Paws for Purple Hearts

by Tom Cramer, VA Staff Writer
Thursday, February 13, 2014

Henry Wheeler Shaw, a 19th Century American humorist, once made the following observation: “A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”

The good folks at the Palo Alto VA’s Menlo Park campus seem to agree, because for the last five years they’ve been using dogs to help Veterans overcome symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Getting Out of Your Own Head

“Many of our Veterans report that the dogs help them ‘get out of their own head’ and be more present,” reported Caroline Wyman, chief of Recreation Therapy Services at Palo Alto.

“We’ve always been open to seeking creative and non-traditional ways to better serve our Veterans,” she continued. “So when we were offered the opportunity to implement a service dog training program designed to help Veterans with PTSD, we were on board right away.”

The concept is a simple one: a Veteran with PTSD is given a Labrador or Golden Retriever to pal around with for a couple of months. The Veteran’s job is to teach his new companion a number of commands — commands he’ll need to know when he eventually becomes a service dog for another Veteran.

Wyman said the training process benefits not only the dog, but the Veteran who is doing the training.

“It’s an anxiety-reliever — a form of therapy,” she explained. “The dog helps the Veteran relax, de-stress and focus on something other than his symptoms.

“Training the future service dog is an end in itself,” Wyman observed, “but it’s also just one small aspect of our PTSD treatment program here. It’s a positive experience that helps the Veteran ‘open up’ and hopefully become more receptive to other forms of PTSD therapy. The dog is an avenue for getting the Veteran engaged in his treatment program.”

 If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went. 
— Will Rogers

It’s About the Dog

The canines are supplied to VA by Bergin University of Canine Studies. Their training at VA’s Menlo Park campus is overseen by Sandra Carson, a therapeutic instructor with Paws for Purple Hearts, a non-profit.

“A lot of Veterans with PTSD tend to isolate,” Carson said. “They don’t engage. They build a defensive wall around themselves so they can feel safe. But dogs have an ability to shatter that wall. They’re friendly and non-judgmental. They invite interaction.

“For example,” she continued, “when you’re out in public with the dog, people come up to you and start conversations with you, because you have the dog. So now you’re suddenly talking to people. And it’s easier, because the conversation isn’t about you; it’s about the dog. It takes some pressure off you.”

“When you’re training a dog, you’re communicating with another living creature,” she said. “You’re engaging. And if you can learn to interact successfully with a dog, maybe that’s a first step in learning how to interact successfully with people, again…with your kids, your spouse, even strangers.”

A man sits by a black dog

Veteran John Crofut poses with his canine pal, Ibarra, who has since graduated from his service dog training at VA’s Menlo Park campus. Crofut now has a new furry friend to train, a four-week-old pup named ‘Puckett.’

A Friend in Need

When the future service dogs complete their training at Menlo Park, they’re sent back to Bergin University for more advanced training. Once a canine becomes a fully certified service dog, he’s paired with a disabled Veteran who needs a little help with life’s logistical challenges, like opening doors, turning on a light switch, or picking up items that have dropped to the floor.

An added bonus: the dog also becomes your devoted friend for life.

“These dogs can really sense your mood. They know when you’re having a bad day,” said John Crofut, a 71-year-old Vietnam Veteran who is training a male Lab named Ibarra. “They give you companionship without judgment. Ibarra doesn’t need to know why I have the symptoms I have. He just wants to be with me.”

Crofut said he volunteered for Palo Alto’s service dog training program because he wants to help his fellow Veterans who went to war but, in his words, “didn’t come back whole.

“It’s very rewarding for me to train a service dog for another Veteran,” he said. “It’s a good way for me to give something back.

“Plus,” he added, “I just like dogs.”

“He’s a really smart dog,” Crofut said. “He knows a ton of commands. If you tell him to go pick up his leash from the floor, he’ll pick up the leash and bring it to you. He has a wonderful temperament.”

Some Comfort Here

The Veteran said he and Ibarra go everywhere together.

“On Thursday mornings I cook for a bunch of World War II vets at another part of the complex here at the Menlo Park VA,” he said.

“So Ibarra goes there with me. He even sleeps in my room at night. Right now I’m not sleeping so well, so sometimes he’ll come over and rest his head on my bed. He’ll try and comfort me in some way.”

“The dogs can help relieve symptoms of hyper vigilance,” explained Melissa Puckett, a recreation therapist at Menlo Park. “They allow you to disarm, to let your guard down so you can get a better night’s sleep.

Puckett said the future service dogs also serve another major role in a Veteran’s recovery process.

“Once you’re out of the military, you can sometimes start to question who you are and if you still have a purpose in life,” she said. “Training a service dog gives you purpose, focus and a sense of accomplishment. It reminds you that you have value, which you can still contribute, that you have something to give.”

To learn more about how VA is helping Veterans with PTSD, visit www.ptsd.va.gov