Dogs have been used as instruments of war since man’s best friend became domesticated. It is part of the nature of dogs to protect it’s pack, even if that pack includes two legged members. The idea that dogs can help heal the injured spirit of a warrior is not new either but is finally getting the attention of mental health professionals in the military and veteran communities.
Anyone who has ever had a dog as a companion and not just a pet will attest to the emotional bond reciprocated by our canine friends. Who has not experienced, or at least heard of a story in which a well-loved dog seems to know when his human needs to pet his flank? Or the countless stories of dogs who lay upon the grave of their master, seeming to mourn?
Scientists say dogs do not feel, at least not in the way people do. They call this attribution of strictly human emotions anthropomorphizing. But how do they explain the tender and gentle way a dog approaches its crying human? Obviously, the dog senses something and is reacting but choose to call it emotion and risk being scorned as a sentimentalist.
Most of us who have been fortunate enough to share our lives and homes with a four-legged companion know the difference between what science understands, can prove and categorize and what is reality. Dogs feel. Certainly differently and without the attendant intellectual self-reflection of humans, but dogs certainly react to our emotions.
When we are angry our tone of voice and even the volume causes a reaction in our dog’s behavior. But how to explain suddenly getting leaned on or a having a head deposited in your lap when we aren’t making a sound, just sitting and silently crying? Perhaps they smell something in our tears. Perhaps they sense it in some other way that is contained in that mysterious bond they share with us.
Science does offer an explanation for this, at least in part. It is now proven dogs react to elevated heart rates, rapid breathing and even the subtle physiological changes that accompany anxiety in a human. Some dogs can be trained to do this better than others, and those very special animals become Service Dogs.
These dogs are not trained to assist the blind, the hearing impaired or those with physical disabilities. They are taught to react, with love, simple companionship and even specific actions to ease the emotional distress of their human partners. One of the most beautifully poignant and effective demonstrations is in the video below. It is actually a commercial for The Royal Dutch Guide Dog Foundation.
What is most interesting is that the VA has recently released a report on the benefits of veterans with Post Traumatic Stress getting a dog, even if the pet is not specifically trained. Dogs encourage their humans to get out of the house, go for a walk and meet new people. Walking a dog down the street is a sure way to elicit smiles from strangers, making public encounters less anxiety inducing. The VA is still withholding full support of Service Dogs as an alternative treatment for PTS, noting that counseling and medication is still, in their opinion, the best treatment.
In the opinion of those who have been paired with a trained Service Dog, there is no better treatment. I’ve written before about combat veterans who have been able to get off all medications since their four legged counselor came to them. The joke is that a dog’s side effects – needing to vacuum more frequently, cleaning up poop and the requirements of a feeding schedule don’t require more medication.
One of the hardest habits for a returned combat veteran to break is the need to be on high alert. That habit kept them alive, but can significantly interfere with day to day living in the civilian world. Constantly scanning a crowd for potential threats has become second nature, but is exhausting when the crowd is simply other people in a grocery store.
Repeatedly making sure the windows and doors are locked and secured is a holdover from the days when checking the perimeter could mean the difference between life and death. Sitting with your back to a window or door while in a war zone meant you wouldn’t see a threat in time to react; sitting in a restaurant surrounded by windows makes for a pretty uncomfortable meal when you’re in a diner on Main Street, USA. I’ve often heard veterans talk about not having any idea what the dinner conversation was, or even what they ate because of this type of seating arrangement. This difficulty with having your back to a door is such a constant in combat veterans, many have rearranged the furniture in their homes to help lessen this anxiety.
This is one of the things a devoted and well trained service dog does best. Awareness. Their human can relax, knowing the dog is trained to pay attention to the surroundings whether in a crowd or at home on the sofa.
One of the things new Service Dog partners are most surprised by is how much better they sleep. While they were in a combat zone, they knew that when they got to lay their head down, whether ‘outside the wire’ on a mission or in the relative safety of the Combat Outpost, others were on watch. When they get home, even if they live with a houseful of family that knowledge that someone who is trained and on guard is gone; they are the one who was trained, and if they are asleep, no one is on guard. It is no wonder sleeplessness is the most commonly reported complaint of returned soldiers. Until they have a Service Dog.
There is no better example of than this picture of a soldier asleep in the middle of a busy airport, being literally 'covered' by his dog.
Perhaps the greatest gift a Service Dog gives to its human partner is the reminder they are worthy of love. For many veterans, those who have seen the worst of the worst, they can have a hard time reconnecting with their softer emotions. It is hard to maintain that cold, protective shell when you look into eyes expressing the perfect love only a dog can show.
There are more and more organizations devoted to training and pairing Service Dogs with veterans. As will all things, do a little research to ensure the group you are contacting or supporting is doing what they claim. No organization should ever charge a veteran. If the one you are considering does, find another.
For more information on Service Dogs, I’ve listed a few below. If you know of others, please share the info in the comments.
My personal favorite is Patriot Rovers. Their tagline is “Serving Soldiers, Honoring Heroes”, meaning they name their dogs for a fallen soldier.
My local favorite, both because of their mission and because they are local is 1Pet1Vet. They save shelter dogs and pair them with veterans while providing a safe place to go called The Oasis. Look them up, donate, get involved.
And that advice goes for all of these groups. Each does something a little different, whether it is naming their service and companion animals for the fallen or working exclusively with certain breeds. Each is worthy in it's own way. Of course, dear reader, if you have information or knowledge that someone is not worthy, please let me know and if appropriate, I'll pull my support in a hot minute.
As with all things military, veteran and Gold Star, we are judged by our weakest link. Lets make our links strong, for ourselves, each other and the civilians who benefit from our strength.
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