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Service Dogs: Helping Those Who Served Our Country

By KeaGrace on Oct. 19, 2016

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I was startled awake, only to find the lights already on. My service dog—my partner, my lifeline, my friend—nudged my arm and handed me a cold bottle of water. I hugged the cool container to my chest, rocking slightly, as she jumped into bed with me and laid across my legs. Abandoning the water, I wrapped my arms around her as her soothing weight began to settle my nerves. She gently licked my cheeks and I whispered into her fur, “Thanks for being there.” The nightmare was long gone so we settled back down to sleep.

For the veteran in the story above, things weren’t always so straightforward and peaceful. Flashbacks, bad dreams, difficulty sleeping, guilt, depression, fear and worry plague roughly one-third of the men and women who have spent time in war zones. Many veterans dealing with the crippling effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) experience hopelessness and fear that there’s no viable solution. In fact, less than 40% of veterans ever seek treatment, and countless others face wait times at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that can stretch into months or years.

But a recent upsurge of a simple, relatively inexpensive technique has changed veterans’ lives for the better. This solution comes with four paws, a wet nose and very specialized training: service dogs. Veterans who utilize service dogs report lower levels of depression and anxiety, fewer hospitalizations and numerous other benefits.

Many heroes have two legs, but some have four. For these brave, specialized working dogs, the greatest joy in life comes from partnering with a veteran who needs them. Read on to find out how service dogs make a real difference.
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Service Dogs and Veterans: The Basics

First to clarify, service dogs are different than emotional support animals, which are different than therapy dogs. Therapy dogs can have a variety of jobs, including giving learning-disabled children support to read out loud or visit with people in hospitals or nursing homes. Service dogs help people with disabilities perform tasks, which helps the handler attain safety and independence. And PTSD and psychiatric service dogs provide emotional support with people that have PTSD and other mental health conditions. 

An estimated 20% of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have PTSD and/or depression. When Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) are factored into the equation, the percentage of veterans suffering from debilitating symptoms such as severe social anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares and hypervigilance is much higher. It’s easy to wonder how an animal can help our brave men and women when so many other treatment methods fail. The truth is not every dog fits the bill. Just like the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen they help, service dogs are highly trained professionals with a job to do.

When it comes to service dogs and veterans, the premise is simple: Partner a veteran dealing with depression, PTSD, anxiety, TBI or any other post-war disability (including limited mobility, amputation or visual or auditory impairments) with a carefully-selected, highly-trained canine teammate. While people with physical disabilities have long been partnered with service dogs, PTSD and psychiatric service dogs are a relatively newer resource.

Service dogs are chosen for their solid temperaments, calm demeanor, ability to serve under pressure and handler focus. Many are also highly intuitive and selected for their potential to bond so deeply they can alert their veteran to issues such as seizures, migraines or debilitating shifts in mood before the veteran even knows what’s happening.

What Makes Service Dogs Different

Working dogs partnered with veterans aren’t pets. Their specialized status as service dogs permits them to accompany their veterans anywhere general members of the public are allowed, including supermarkets, restaurants and places of entertainment. Service dogs must meet minimum standards of behavior and possess training to mitigate their veteran’s disability.

Very few dogs are suitable for work as a service dog, and even for professionals, predicting a dog’s aptitude can be very difficult. Riann Cambio, head trainer at the Phoenix-based program K9 Lifeline Dog Training, says service dog candidates must be unshakable in all scenarios and situations (especially if they will be paired with veterans). “These dogs must always be calm, always be willing to dive into tense or emotional situations with their veterans and always respond quickly and efficiently when asked to work,” Cambio explains. It’s also imperative that service dogs want to work. “They were born for this job, and we’re just giving them the opportunity,” Cambio goes on to note. “Finding the right dog is very difficult. It takes experience, extensive temperament testing and sometimes a little luck.”

Service dogs—and their ability to work in public—are protected by federal and state laws. While there are several pieces of service dog legislation, the most well-known is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It defines service dogs, disabilities, public accommodations and many other associated terms. It also provides an exact breakdown of where service dogs may accompany their handler, what businesses may ask of the team if they’re concerned about their legitimacy and basic standards for behavior.

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The benefits of partnering with a service dog extend beyond the task. In order to be a service dog with public access, the dog must possess specialized training. But outside of training, these unique animals are still friendly and loveable. They offer support, love and unconditional understanding. They help establish schedules and routines through their feeding and walking requirements and they offer distraction through playtime. These animals serve as friends and confidants. They’re not just dogs; they’re part of a team.

Service Dog Requirements

Per the ADA, anyone with a diagnosed disability that affects their quality of life in one or more major ways can partner with a service dog, as long as the service dog has individualized training to mitigate the person’s disability. That means a pet dog without proper training is not a service dog. Additionally, people who can best have their needs met via other accommodations are not eligible for a service dog.

There are two primary requirements for a veteran to have a service dog:

  1. The veteran must have a diagnosed disability.
  2. The veteran must receive or train a dog that possesses the proper temperament and aptitude for service dog work to alleviate the effects of that disability.

Nationwide programs train and place service dogs with veterans, but the law also allows for veterans to select and self-train their own dog. There is no required certification, paperwork, documentation or gear for service dogs, although there are standards of behavior and training that must be met before a new service dog team can work in public.

The requirements of service dog programs vary, and each organization must be contacted individually to find out about their application and training process. Typically, a doctor’s note, letter of recommendation and proof of military service must be provided. There may or may not be a cost for the service dog. (Patriot Paws is a well-known program that provides dogs at no cost.) Many programs assist veterans with fundraising or offer financing programs and payment plans. There are scholarships and grants available on a very limited basis and the Veterans Administration may assist with payment (although it is very rare).

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Service Dogs and Veterans: The Rest of the Story

For many veterans, life after partnering with a service dog is wildly different than life before. They enjoy hobbies and activities they stopped participating in. They go out for dinner with family and friends without having anxiety attacks. They no longer wake up in the middle of night drenched in a cold sweat. Life improves and becomes fun again with the help of their K9 teammate. 

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Helping Heroes 

Join the Petco Foundation and their friends at Natural Balance to honor the lifesaving impact that service and therapy animals have on countless lives. Contributions to the Helping Heroes campaign can be made at any Petco or Unleashed by Petco store or online at www.petcofoundation.org with all funds going to service and therapy animal organizations throughout the United States.

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2 Comments
Comments
by
‎11-12-2015 05:30 PM
My dog Teddy has saved my life countless times just on the thought of what would happened to him if I wasn't here. I've been diagnosed with PTSD, depression and several other things, and what's frustrating for me is I could have gotten on a waiting list to be paired with a dog for free, but if I asked to train him they wanted $150 a session. I can't afford that, and so he and I deal with it in our own way. I really wish there was a program that taught veterans how to train their dogs to help them, that weren't outlandishly priced. I am going to school full time, just lost my job and am a single woman who has to deal with not only the stress of that, but the emotional and mental issues on a daily basis. Somedays he's the only reason I'm alive.
My dog Teddy has saved my life countless times just on the thought of what would happened to him if I wasn't here. I've been diagnosed with PTSD, depression and several other things, and what's frustrating for me is I could have gotten on a waiting list to be paired with a dog for free, but if I asked to train him they wanted $150 a session. I can't afford that, and so he and I deal with it in our own way. I really wish there was a program that taught veterans how to train their dogs to help them, that weren't outlandishly priced. I am going to school full time, just lost my job and am a single woman who has to deal with not only the stress of that, but the emotional and mental issues on a daily basis. Somedays he's the only reason I'm alive.
Posted on Nov. 12, 2015
by Liz w
‎06-01-2017 10:16 AM

Which service dog organization/s are you helping?

Which service dog organization/s are you helping?

Posted on Jun. 1, 2017
About the Author
  • Keagen "Kea" J. Grace CPDT-KA, CTDI is a freelance writer and author who specializes in training professional working dogs. She is widely published in a variety of venues and actively competes in several canine sports. She also serves as a consultant for Service and working dog programs across North America and Europe.
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