On September 5, 2012, the Federal Register confirmed that the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) would amend its regulations regarding funding for service dogs for veteran military personnel. The new rule, which went into effect October 5, eliminated funding to provide service dogs for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

The veterans administration was quoted by ABC News as saying that, although it does not dispute that dogs have improved the quality of life for some veterans, the “VA has not yet been able to determine that these dogs provide a medical benefit to veterans with mental illness.” The VA continues to fund service dogs for veterans with physical, visual or hearing impairments.

At the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting in May 2012, Maj. Gary Wynn presented the group with research conducted at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. As reported by Stars and Stripes, the newspaper for the U.S. military community and the Department of Defense since World War II, that research showed that approximately half of all soldiers who return from war with PTSD don’t seek treatment, and those who do often drop out of therapy before the recommended course is completed.

Many factors are responsible for this. The Huffington Post is not alone in calling PTSD one of “the invisible wounds of war,” and military culture traditionally views any psychological issue as a sign of weakness. The National Center for PTSD notes that those who suffer from the disorder may believe they’ll get better on their own, or may not understand how treatment works. Many soldiers also believe that they are not able to seek treatment without their fellow military personnel knowing about it.

PTSD can result when a soldier has been exposed to incoming artillery, rocket or mortar fire, experiences an attack or ambush, or when someone the soldier knows is seriously wounded or killed. Studies show that during a deployment almost all military personnel are exposed at least once to a situation that could lead to the disorder. Possible symptoms of PTSD may include flashbacks or bad dreams; feelings of emotional numbness, guilt, depression, worry, stress or anger; loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities; and angry outbursts or violent behavior, according to the National Institute of Mental Health Those with the disorder may have difficulty sleeping or may even experience physical pain, and some may resort to substance abuse to ease their symptoms.

PTSD can have even more serious consequences. In July, USA Today reported that “suicide within the military has soared since 2005 as the military has waged two wars at once.” Soldiers who attempted suicide reported they did so in an effort to “end intense emotional distress.” According to Smithsonian magazine, more than 300,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD. The psychological wounds of war often prove overwhelming even for the strongest soldier, who, no matter how hard he tries, may not be able to overcome his pain and suffering on his own.

Therapy on Four Legs

The work of numerous organizations around the United States is based on exactly the premise that the VA says it has not yet been able to prove – the certain knowledge that dogs can provide returning veterans with a host of benefits related to their emotional and psychological, and therefore physical, health.

Although most of the evidence is anecdotal, many health care professionals, soldiers and their families believe that service dogs provide a legitimate solution for veterans who need support after returning to civilian life. One unique organization that is helping them get that support is Paws and Stripes, based in Rio Rancho, N.M., north of Albuquerque.

Staff Sgt. Jim Stanek joined the military in 2003 after having been part of the cleanup efforts following September 11, 2001, when he was a volunteer firefighter and ironworker. He served in the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne, the 51st Long Range Surveillance Company and in the Big Red One Infantry division before he was injured in Iraq during his third tour of duty. The soldier suffered a brain injury, and upon his return to the U.S. received treatment at the Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio for nine months. After just six-and-a-half years and three deployments, Jim faced the end of his military career much earlier than he had hoped. His physical injuries, as well as chronic severe PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI), forced the Army to retire him for medical reasons.

Lindsey and Jim Stanek with Sarge. Photo by Kim Jackson.

It was during his stay in Texas that Jim had a positive experience with therapy dogs, finding relief from many of his symptoms through contact with them. While Jim was recovering in San Antonio, his then-girlfriend, now wife, Lindsey adopted a rescue dog that she “knew would be a great companion for Jim.” After his release from treatment, Jim and Lindsey tried in vain to figure out a way to get Sarge, a female Catahoula mix, trained as a service dog for Jim. Financial and administrative obstacles continually blocked the way. Eventually Jim trained Sarge on his own, and it was the realization that others would face the same obstacles, coupled with his own experience with Sarge, that inspired the couple to forge a new path.

Jim found putting Sarge through her service dog training himself not only rewarding, but “more effective than any pill or therapy session” could have been in treating the wounds of war. So, in June 2010, the Staneks founded a nonprofit organization that would work to provide service dogs for veterans like Jim.

“We created Paws and Stripes after trying to get help for Jim,” says Lindsey. “We wanted to focus on veterans with PTSD and TBI.”

Paws and Stripes is unique in several ways. It only serves veterans who suffer from PTSD and TBI. The organization’s goal is to provide dogs and training for qualified veterans at absolutely no cost to them. But perhaps its most unique feature is that, unlike traditional service dog organizations whose canines are bred and raised specifically for their life’s work, only dogs obtained from shelters are utilized as service dogs through Paws and Stripes.

“Jim likes to say that there are a lot of veterans out there who feel lost and forgotten,” says Lindsey, “and the same can be said about many dogs found in shelters. It’s a perfect match.” In conventional programs, future service dogs go through several years of training before being placed with the person they will assist. If the disabled person later has issues with the dog, however slight, it must go back for reinforcement training. In the Paws and Stripes program, veterans are able to be part of the process of selecting their own dogs and then training them. “We work with the veterans until they find the dog that is the perfect fit for them,” says Lindsey, and the duos work with a trainer through the entire program of schooling the dog in service work.

As noted in Smithsonian, furry four-legged companions can be supportive partners for PTSD victims in many ways. Dogs have a tendency to draw out even the most reticent personalities, and training and teaching a dog not only helps awaken a numbed heart, but can also help veterans feel comfortable communicating again. Having a dog at her side can help a veteran feel comfortable in otherwise tense surroundings. The positive feedback dogs are known for engenders greater confidence in their companions. All of these factors support the evidence that continues to mount showing that bonding with a dog has positive biological effects.

Through their own experience, the Staneks discovered that in the process of training a dog, the person doing the training not only forges a strong bond with the canine, but also builds his own sense of security and self-reliance. And if a Paws and Stripes dog needs reinforcement training at a later time, it doesn’t need to be sent away, because the veteran can again partner with a trainer to provide supplemental training.

Of course, certain criteria must be met when selecting a canine to become a service dog. Mobility assistance is often required from service dogs, no matter what kind of injuries the veteran may have. The brain trauma Jim suffered, for instance, means that he occasionally has a problem with balance. So dogs must be over 50 pounds to qualify for the program. They should be 2 to 4 years of age, physically fit and able to pass a health examination. Before a dog is accepted into the program, it must also pass a Paws and Stripes assessment for temperament, receptiveness, eye contact and other criteria.

Veterans who get and train dogs through the Paws and Stripes program may have other disabilities as well, but they must have been diagnosed with PTSD or TBI. They must also have approval from their doctors to enter the program, and a mental health assessment by Paws and Stripes social workers is required. Not every veteran is strong enough yet, physically or emotionally, to go through the process. “It’s a very intensive program,” Lindsey says. “Veterans are learning not only to work with their dogs, but are also being ‘trained’ and may be put in situations where they might not necessarily be comfortable. The training itself also requires them to be on their feet a lot, so it is physically involved.”

Veteran Aden Johnson and his dog Koa trained through the Paws and Stripes program. Photo by Sharon Padilla for Paws and Stripes.

Training these service dogs from start to finish typically takes about six months, and veterans and their dogs work with their trainers on a weekly basis. “On occasion they may finish the program in as little as four months, but six months is more average,” says Lindsey. Because vets must be present and train weekly to complete the program, most have been from the Albuquerque area, although a few from other states have made arrangements to stay nearby in order to work with Paws and Stripes.

To date, 31 veterans have found dogs and trained them through the Paws and Stripes program, and several more will complete training before the end of the year. Lindsey says that the veterans have been men and women, younger and older, all shapes, ethnicities and sizes. The majority served in Iraq or Afghanistan, but they’ve also worked with veterans of Desert Storm and the war in Vietnam. As Lindsey says, by the time they’ve completed the program, soldiers and dogs have an amazingly strong bond.

The program uses a variety of training methods, but only professionals who specialize in training service dogs work for Paws and Stripes, and the organization provides its own additional specialized instruction to prepare its staff to train these service dogs in particular. “They also get training for crisis intervention and in mental health,” Lindsey explains. Trainers must have a solid understanding of PTSD and TBI as well.

The work of Paws and Stripes is funded through private donations and sponsors, fundraisers and grants from private foundations. With so many soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, no doubt the need for programs like this will greatly increase. “There are quite a few programs starting out there trying to do something similar,” says Lindsey, “but this is a very unique program.” The waiting list at Paws and Stripes currently exceeds 700, making the VA’s recent change in funding for service dogs even more difficult to understand.

Indeed, many other organizations are working to help veterans heal from the wounds of war through the love, support and assistance of service dogs. On this Veterans Day, we not only want to thank the men and women who serve our nation, but we also send our gratitude to the hardworking individuals like Lindsey and Jim who endeavor to make the lives of our military men and women better when they return home. And last, but by no means least, we are grateful for the dogs that help make our returning soldiers’ lives whole again.