By Emily Pippin
The feeling of warm fur on skin is powerful. A bark, a nudge, a gentle, wet lick on the hand. These small gestures and movements can bring calm and confidence to a wounded veteran or person living with physical or mental disabilities or injuries.
Therapy dogs: unconditional love and assistance for veterans
Not all injuries are visible. And perhaps the invisible injuries are the most difficult to heal. The bi-coastal Paws and People Aiding Wounded Warriors program aims to do just that: heal the invisible injuries veterans often suffer through. From working with top-of-the-line breeders across the country, to training the pick of the litter puppies, to matching the dogs with a prospective wounded veteran, the PPaWWs team works to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental injuries in veterans. And their hard work is paying off.
“I cannot tell you how much my service dog has changed my life in just the past five months,” Nathan Dee, a PPaWWs therapy dog recipient said. “I have tried group therapy, individual therapy, medication and hospitalization, but nothing has helped as much as having a dog that helps me feel safe out in the world, keeps me company and loves me unconditionally.”
Dee was severely injured while deployed in Afghanistan and now suffers from traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and other physical ailments. He was matched with the PPaWWs program in Atlanta where he met his now-daily companion, Alice, a Great Dane. Through her training with the PPaWWs program she has been able to help Dee in a variety of ways. From giving Dee the confidence to talk in front of crowds, to physically supporting him so he doesn’t need his cane, to finding his way home if he gets lost or disoriented, Alice has made a profound difference in his life.
“It was amazing how much Alice became in tune with me,” Dee said. “She started to wake me up before the alarm went off because she noticed I had trouble getting up. She started to remind me if I didn’t take my meds. If I started to get angry she would distract me by either pushing me out the door or making me pet her.”
Ericka Korb, trainer with Freedom Dogs, an organization much like PPaWWs that matches service dogs with veterans, said veterans make great partners to their dogs. “Loyalty, duty, respect, honor, courage- these values don’t leave service members as they transition out of service and battle the emotional demons at home, and they get to enact these values in the care of their service dog,” Korb said. “They find a renewed purpose in life, if only at first to care for the dog.” Korb said the veterans use their renewed purpose in life to regain an identity in the world.
PPaWWs program in action
The PPaWWs program is filled with a variety of important and helpful therapy dogs. But one dog in particular really stands out. Elliot, a 6-month-old Standard Poodle, has charmed his trainer and is sure to make a wonderful companion for a wounded veteran.
Service Dogs: more than just help for veterans; help and assistance for all
And dogs don’t only support veterans with invisible mental injuries. Service dogs can help individuals cope and work through physical disabilities or injuries. The Paws’itive Teams program works with breeders to find the best dogs and pairs them with experienced trainers who guide them through the training process and teach them a variety of tasks so they’re able to work with and help those who need their help most. From cerebral palsy to acute arthritis to physical disability caused by car accidents and beyond, service dogs provide not only love and support, but help with a variety of physical tasks.
“Dogs are great partners for recovery in general, due to their unconditional acceptance they have for their owners,” Korb said. “They are quite keen on mood shifts and changes in situations which affect the handler, and they respond accordingly either from the depths of their memory from training sessions or their natural tendency to be protective, concerned and tuned in to their human.”
Autumn, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, was matched with Alesha, a college senior who has limited mobility, through the Paws’itive Teams program in early October 2011. Though the two have only been working together for a few short weeks, Alesha has already told the Paws’itive Teams administrators that her confidence has grown immensely with Autumn by her side—so much so, that she feels comfortable leaving her hometown to go away to medical school.
Paws’itive Teams service dogs are trained to help their human partners get out of bed, get dressed, retrieve hard-to-reach items, open doors, carry packages and much more. And these animals do more than just help carry the groceries in the house, they change lives forever.
Paws’itive Teams Program in action
The dogs in the Paws’itive Teams training program range in size, color, breed and disposition. But one common hair among them is the fact that they are all working their way to being reliable, loving helpers to their human counterparts.
Whether a person is managing physical or mental disabilities or injuries, a service or therapy dog can serve as so much more than just a pet; they are truly companions and friends to their human counterparts.
“Dogs are amazing,” Laura Westerfield, co-founder of PPaWWS said. “Somehow they just know how to make a person feel better emotionally and help them with physical tasks that get them through the day all at the same time.”