When a vet returns home, these dogs are more than best friends.
By PTSDJournal Staff
There are many programs designed to support veterans returning home from combat. The difficulty of veterans adjusting to civilian life, and finding ways to help is a scientific experiment.
The founders of Veterans Moving Forward (vetsfwd.org) recognize the challenges, and their remedy is to train service dogs to provide therapy for individuals suffering from trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“I’ve gone from basically being a shut-in to being able to venture out with a little bit of confidence, with more than a little bit of confidence,” says Jesse Solano, an Army sergeant who served in Somalia, Bosnia and Operation Iraqi Freedom. I’m able to do normal things.”
When Solano speaks of looking back, he is referring to the time before his dog, King, came into his life. Since he took ownership of King in December 2015, Solano says his life has changed. “I feel better about myself. I’ve got a purpose,” he said. “Not that I didn’t before because I have a wife and three children, and they mean the world to me.”
The mission for VMF is to use canine therapy services for veterans with physical and mental health challenges. The organization’s model has found tremendous success. It currently has more than 1,000 vets on a waiting list for a dog. VMF is also looking to partner with other dog-training companies to meet the demand.
Helping soldiers like Solano is VMF’s goal. The process starts with a six-step training program for dogs beginning when they are about eight weeks old. The training can last up to two years, and raising a service dog can cost from $15,000 to $50,000. The dogs progress from Assistance Dog in Training (ADT) to taking the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen examination. A dog that has passed the AKC test is fit to be a service animal. A dog works daily with a puppy trainer who grooms it for its role and teaches the animal how to be affectionate. The result is that a clumsy puppy becomes a highly skilled helper that knows how to monitor and evaluate a soldier from afar.
Retired v Army Major Gen. Ken Dowd, the president and CEO of Veterans Moving Forward, witnessed such an act.
“When Marines or veterans come home, they get greeted by our dogs,” Dowd says. “I remember a dog named Neil. Neil looked at this one Marine, walked up to him and pulled him out of a group of soldiers. A team of doctors started a conversation with the Marine and found out he was having trouble with redeployment.”
That story is one of the reasons Dowd’s staff is committed to success. Dowd says a dog is matched with a veteran, and they live together for six months to make sure they are compatible. Once a match is confirmed, the veteran has a best friend and is a step closer to being better.
“Before I got King, I wouldn’t go virtually anywhere,” Solano says. “That, I guess, has been the biggest thing for me.”