The New Battle Buddy – Service Dogs Help Veterans Overcome PTSD

“I’ve gone through a few dark periods with Bonnie, and she picks up on that. She’s literally saved my life more than once.”

Jim’s Story

“I was in a dark, dark place,” said an Army soldier from Texas as he was transitioning from active duty. With eyes filled with tears and a deep sadness in his voice he recalled, “I lost my battle buddy that day.”

After two tours in Iraq as a combat medic, this Staff Sergeant (I will call him Jim, not his real name) lived in a warrior transition unit at Ft. Sam Houston. Jim was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, along with sustaining a traumatic brain injury. His unit had been hit with several improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Part of my job when I worked at Ft. Sam Houston was transition counseling at the Soldier Family Assistance Center (SFAC) in the Wounded Warrior Village. This is where Jim and I first met. I became a friendly and safe confidant that he could speak to. While at the Wounded Warrior Village his only job was to get healthy.

In our conversations, Jim told me, “I was ugly to my wife and family; I was at the end of the line. I couldn’t see beyond my own guilt and what I witnessed. Going to the movies was the worst: the crowds, the dark, the whispering. I was isolated, my family deteriorating around me. I couldn’t show affection, couldn’t hug my kids.”

“He just shut down, mentally and physically,” his wife said. “He was there, but he wasn’t there. Just to get him to go anywhere was a struggle.”

It was all brutal, as he recalled the long list of medications he was prescribed, he told me, “I was contemplating suicide and was a hot mess, had major depression, mood swings, and nightmares, all the time.” But this wasn’t the end for Jim and his family.

As is the case with any illness, diagnosis is just the first step in a long journey back to wholeness. His step back from the edge started as Jim began cognitive processing therapy for his PTSD.

That’s when he was introduced to the idea of a service dog and thankfully, he found his way back with the help of a new battle buddy named Bonnie. Without the help from the VA, Jim had to find a trainer and a dog on his own.

Standing two feet tall with brown eyes and four paws, Bonnie, a Labrador Retriever, was Jim’s new service dog, and they became inseparable. Bonnie now goes with Jim everywhere, and ends the day at the foot of his bed … ever vigilant.

Jim’s wife said her husband has come a long way from the days when she’d come home from work uncertain what mood she would find him in. Bonnie changed all that when she joined the family. “It was a turning point in our family and our marriage,” she said.

“I’ve gone through a few dark periods with Bonnie, and she picks up on that. She’s literally saved my life more than once,” Jim said. “It was an emotional experience. Bonnie and I clicked right away. She started giving me hugs. We were a match the first minute I touched her leash.”

Bonnie also has helped heal his family. While he still struggles with PTSD, Jim now manages to do things he couldn’t imagine before. He goes out to dinner with his family. He attends his children’s school events, and can even go back to the movies.

Wounded veterans don’t have to needlessly suffer. “Get help,” he says. “Don’t just rely on medication to alleviate your PTSD. There are additional options out there that can also change your life.”

The New Battlefront at Home

For many brave members of our armed forces, coming home as a civilian is only the beginning of another daunting battle. The invisible wounds of war, including Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) can cause debilitating symptoms in veterans, leading to depression, social isolation, and, far too often, suicide.

In addition to PTS/TBI, the suicide rate among veterans is on the rise. One VA study found that almost two dozen veterans commit suicide a day. To help reduce that number, a loveable canine companion can help. The purpose of the service dog is to mitigate the disability, so that one can live a normal or near normal life. This is because dogs are uniquely able to facilitate relationships with people.

Only recently have the benefits of service dogs gained mainstream attention, yet according to American Humane, they began using dogs to help veterans returning from World War II with PTSD as early as 1945.

New research finds that “man’s best friends” could be lifesavers for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A growing body of scientific research shows that specially trained PTS service dogs can reduce stress and anxiety levels, mitigate depression, ease social reintegration, provide comfort, and restore confidence in affected veterans.

Researchers are accumulating evidence that bonding with dogs has biological effects, such as elevated levels of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin improves trust, the ability to interpret facial expressions, and the overcoming of paranoia and other pro-social effects — the opposite of PTSD symptoms.

Uniquely Qualified

Dogs are everybody’s best friend, but for some combat veterans they are much, much more. Service dogs are saving their lives, they are the new battle buddy. The concept of a battle buddy means that the soldier never goes out alone, that there is always someone watching your back. Now with a service dog, that concept is still in place.

There are many types of treatments for veterans with PTSD. One of the most recently discovered therapies – one that also happens to be safe, effective, and all natural – involves the pairing of specially trained therapy dogs with PTSD vets. Those suffering from PTSD many times don’t trust and won’t take the cocktail of medications shoved at them by the VA. But dogs don’t trigger distrust in vets with PTSD.

The presence of a dog creates a buffer in public places. The dogs also serve as social lubricant, making it impossible for a person to isolate while out in public. They draw out even the most isolated personality. Having to praise and interact with their new battle buddy helps traumatized veterans overcome emotional numbness.

It’s not the breed of the dog that matters — it’s the temperament. However, some breeds are more ideal than others. Golden Retrievers, Labradors, and German Shepherds make ideal companions for PTSD veterans due to their size, temperament and sociability, and they go everywhere with their partner.

Teaching the dogs service commands develops a veteran’s ability to communicate, and to be assertive but not aggressive, a distinction some struggle with. The dogs can also assuage the hypervigilance that is common with PTSD by doing things such as lying on the chest of someone having a panic attack until the person calms down or waking a veteran from a nightmare.

Some veterans report they finally got some sleep knowing that their battle buddy was standing watch.

Broken Bureaucracy

One of the frustrations that veterans have with the Department of Veterans Affairs is that it won’t cover expenses for service animals for PTSD. The federal agency does pay for service animals for veterans with visual, hearing, or mobility impairments, but not for former service members whose only disability is PTSD.

The VA has studied the potential benefits of service animals for PTSD patients, but the agency has said that research has been inconclusive. They have had to redesign their study more than once. Veterans need the Department of Veterans Affairs study to validate their personal experiences with science that could support implementing and funding widespread therapeutic use.

In an April 2016 statement, Dr. Michael Fallon, Chief Veterinary Medical Officer in the Office of Research and Development at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), included this update on the study before the Subcommittee on National Security at the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform:

“Currently, VA does not provide benefits for PTSD or mental health dogs because they are not known to be effective in overcoming specific functional limitations; this study is incredibly important in building the evidence base. VA continues to monitor other scientific literature for quality evidence to inform future policies and remains strongly committed to completing the current PTSD and service dog study at an estimated cost of at least $12 million.”

Really? Sounds like a bureaucratic answer to me! So much more could be accomplished if the VA would stop sitting on their hands and make service dogs an approved treatment for PTSD. The research and data is already available.

Representative Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., recently introduced a bill that would take $10 million from the VA’s budget to immediately begin pairing service dogs with post 9/11 veterans for whom traditional PTSD treatments hadn’t worked. VA Secretary David Shulkin said, “I’ve seen the impact that these dogs can have on veterans and so I’m a believer. I don’t want to wait until the research is there. If there’s something that can help our veterans, we want to be pursuing it,”

The VA has “fumbled” its study and veterans can’t afford to wait any longer.

Patriots Step In

Committed to putting healing leashes into the hands of veterans and first responders in need, Patriots have stepped in to bridge the gap with programs that match therapy dogs with the ever-growing number of US military veterans suffering from severe service-related PTSD. There are many organizations answering this need. Below I have listed a few of the many great programs that are out there.

K9s for Freedom and Independence, an organization that I have personal connection to, is located in the Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas metroplex. Founder Janeen Baggette says, “PTSD Service Dogs can literally change the life of a veteran or other persons with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and our mission specializes in PTSD and/or TBI Service Dogs. Our focus is on those persons that have served our country as a US Military Member, Law Enforcement Officer, Fire Fighter, or EMS Worker, and our motto is “so that 4 paws opens doors and minds.”

K9s for Warriors, president Shari Duval says, “We’re able to give warriors a chance to see the world again and build a life after combat, as well as educate more people about the important role service dogs play in improving veterans’ lives.”

Vets Helping Heroes was created by Irwin Stovroff, a 90 year-old WWII veteran and prisoner of war who saw the healing ability of a therapy dog while volunteering at a hospital. Despite his own PTSD and other personal challenges, Irwin is answering the call to serve the men and women who have sacrificed so much for our country.

As far as Jim is concerned, the question of whether his new battle buddy has helped has been answered. “I honestly feel without Bonnie in my life right now, I probably wouldn’t be alive.”

Whatever the potential costs of providing these service dogs to me and other vets, Jim added, it’s “nickels and dimes compared to the service we provided to our country.”

This article was originally published in 2017.