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Canine-assisted therapy program 'Paws for Purple Hearts' offers healing support at San Francisco VA

Oakley gives lead trainer Megan Frank his paw.
Lead Trainer Megan Frank and Oakley

Five years ago, Brian Mohlenhoff, a staff psychiatrist with San Francisco VA Health Care System (SFVAHCS), laid the foundation for an extraordinary complimentary mental health treatment program known as canine-assisted therapy.

Several groups now hold sessions at San Francisco VA Medical Center, bringing a remarkable opportunity for healing and support to our nation’s Veterans.

Through a distinct collaboration and the remarkable work of training service dogs, Paws for Purple Hearts (PPH) transforms the lives of Veterans, connecting them with the unconditional love and loyalty of their four-legged companions. This collaborative effort is unique in that it reduces the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), military sexual trauma (MST), and depression and anxiety. Clinical staff and professional PPH instructors involve Veterans with these conditions in the preparation and training of service dogs they then provide to other Veterans through their Canine-Assisted Warrior Therapy program. They also offer a Social Therapy program, where PPH makes informal therapeutic social therapy visits to sites where Veterans would benefit from the interaction.

As the success of canine-assisted therapy groups grows, Paws for Purple Hearts continues to expand their reach and extend their impact, which leaves an inedible mark on the lives of those who bravely served our country. The organization places mobility, trauma, and facility service dogs and to date, deployed over 162 dogs for canine-assisted therapy programs. With the continued success of canine-assisted therapy groups, PPH set its sights on expanding its reach beyond the medical center, extending their transformative programs to a wider demographic of Veterans in the health care system’s catchment. Extending canine-assisted therapy to Veterans promises to enrich the lives of even more individuals, fostering hope, resilience, and a renewed sense of purpose.

At the heart of Paws for Purple Hearts lies a powerful vision to utilize the therapeutic benefits of service dogs to aid in the recovery and rehabilitation of Veterans. In a combined effort, Veteran patients come together in dedicated groups, embarking on a profound journey that not only imparts valuable training skills to the service dogs but also fosters an environment of camaraderie and mutual support among participants.

Recently, a group of clinical staff, Veterans, and PPH professional trainers gathered at the San Francisco VA Medical Center’s PTSD clinic under the Paws for Purple Hearts program. This specialized session provided targeted assistance to Veterans grappling with the debilitating effects of PTSD. “Dogs don’t judge, they know no diagnoses at all, I think that’s the best kind of therapy that you can get because there’s literally no judgment at all, they’re just happy you showed up,” says Mary Kate Cipollone, a professional trainer with PPH who observed the group in preparation to lead training sessions herself.

By harnessing the unique bond between humans and canines, these therapy sessions create a safe space for Veterans to share their experience, find encouragement, and cultivate emotional resilience. Canine-assisted therapy provides an opportunity to combine clinical and holistic treatment in a whole-health centered approach to well-being.

Recognizing the far-reaching challenges faced by Veterans battling a host of ailments including depression and anxiety, PPH actively collaborates with Veterans Health Administration (VHA) medical centers nationwide to assist in treating their specific needs. By joining forces, these groups combine their expertise and resources to provide comprehensive support to Veterans, ensuring that no one is left behind in their quest for healing and recovery. Such partnerships solidify the commitment to uplift and empower those who selflessly served our nation.

The collaborative effort of San Francisco VA Health Care System and Paws for Purple Hearts is a beacon of hope and healing for Veterans in the Bay Area, enriching their lives through the power of the human-canine bond. Through collective efforts and innovative approaches, this remarkable organization continues to break barriers, leaving an indelible mark on the lives of those who served our country. As they forge ahead in their mission to support Veterans battling PTSD, MST, depression, and anxiety, PPH epitomizes the spirit of compassion, resilience, and steadfast dedication to those who sacrificed so much for our country.