Service dogs around the world are trained to help members of the public in a variety of ways. Now one nonprofit organization called Patriot Paws is using those same service dogs to help veterans from across the country who are suffering from mental health issues and physical disabilities.
Founder Lori Stevens started the initiative in 2005 after being approached by a local veteran group to train their own service dogs. She soon realized there was a greater need for her services and began training dogs on the side.
In the early years, the Texas organization struggled to generate publicity and operated out of a tiny storefront with only two part-time volunteers. “In the beginning we had more dogs than we did veterans,” says Terri Stringer, the executive director of Patriot Paws. But today, Paws has 20 staff members and two facilities in Texas: a training warehouse and dedicated head office. It’s also one of only three non-profits in the country recognized by Assistance Dogs International, which sets standards for service dogs.
Studies have shown veterans with post-traumatic stress disorders (and other mental health issues) experience marked improvements after being paired with a dog. A recent study by health consortium Kaiser Permante found that veterans with service dogs reported lower symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), less substance abuse, and fewer psychiatric symptoms than veterans without dogs.
This is no surprise to Stringer, who says she has seen firsthand how troops benefit from having service dogs that can do everything from helping with laundry to waking them during night terrors.
“The veterans that have PTSD are highly vigilant, very anxious”
Stringer says. “The dog can be taught to check all the doors and windows and search the house and let the veterans know everything is okay.”
One veteran, says Stringer, discussed how a Paws dog helped him deal with crowds and loud noises, which had become difficult situations for him to navigate after returning home from Iraq – so much so that he would purposely shopped at night to avoid large groups. The closer he got to the checkout counter, the more anxious he became. That’s exactly when his dog would lessen the tension by leaning against him to steady him and provide emotional support.
The federal government doesn’t provide funding for service dogs that aid those suffering from PTSD —although they do provide them to military service men and women with physical disabilities. Therefore, Paws relies mostly on donations to operate, with the average donation around $25, Stringer says.
Relying on donations, however, does impact the number of veterans who are awarded canine helpers. The training process itself can take as long as two-and-a-half years and costs up to $34,000 to feed, teach and care for a single dog. The organization also doesn’t charge veterans for the use of the dogs or expenses incurred to get a dog to its new owner.
“Our current wait for a dog is about four years, and it’s a problem,” Stringer says. “One of our veterans said, ‘Imagine that you went to your doctor and he said, ‘You know, I have the cure for you, but you’re going to have to wait four years to get it.’ ”
In the meantime, Stringer and her team say they will continue to fundraise and provide dog-matching services. “The dogs make such a difference,” she says, citing in particular one veteran who had been burned on over 73 percent of his body and lost both arms in Iraq. The injured man uses his dog to fulfill day-to-day tasks that many take for granted. His only answer when asked by staff about why he wanted a dog, says Stringer, was so he could get dressed and go to the washroom by himself without asking his 7-year-old son for assistance.
Dogs aren’t just a source of emotional and physical support – they can also preserve a veteran’s dignity and independence.