Service dogs help some veterans cope with life after war

IMAGE: CNS photo/Aprille Hanson, Arkansas Catholic

By Aprille Hanson

CABOT, Ark. (CNS) — U.S. Navy
veteran Dave King’s whole world changed when Zack came into his life.

The young Catahoula mix plucked
from a shelter already has all the love in the world for his new companion. But
when Zack is wearing his vest he has a higher purpose — he is a service dog in
training to help King cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain

Before King got Zack three
months ago, he almost became a statistic — about 20 American vets a day commit
suicide, according to 2014 data from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I tried to commit suicide. I
stepped out in front of a speeding vehicle and he just happened to stop short
and it was a sheriff,” he said, adding he was taken to the hospital for help.

King, who was homeless, found A
Veteran’s Best Friend, a volunteer nonprofit organization and Christian
ministry that helps veterans by training service dogs for free through
community and church donations and sponsorships of veterans. Volunteers keep
the cost down to about $6,000 to $7,000 per dog.

Individuals or groups can pledge
$25 a month to sponsor 12- to 18-months of training for a service dog and
veteran. For many veterans like King, purchasing a service dog to help him cope
with his PTSD and his brain injury, which can cost $20,000 or more, was out of
the question.

“Somehow they found the absolute
perfect dog for me,” said King, who has found housing through the VA Homeless
Veterans program. “I have bad nightmares; I’ll talk and make noises. From the
first night I had him, he’ll wake me up from a nightmare. He’ll stand there and
poke me with his paw.”

The organization, based in
Cabot, was founded in 2012 and has about 25 volunteers who assist with training
and serve on the board of directors. There are currently nine veterans enrolled
in the classes that meet once or twice a week depending on the stage in
training to prepare the dogs with the necessary skills to serve their owners

All veterans accepted into the
class must have doctor-diagnosed PTSD and go through an application and
orientation process and home check. While most veterans are hands-on in the
training sessions, some dogs are trained solely by volunteers.

Instead of buying from breeders,
the volunteers search out shelter dogs or rescues from the Paws in Prison
program, primarily Labrador and Retriever mixes, and put them through a series
of preliminary tests to see if they have the demeanor and skills to make a good
service dog. If a dog is adopted and does not work out as a service dog, the
volunteers work to adopt them to a loving family.

At its core, the nonprofit
exists to help veterans. But Frances Kirk, a U.S. Army veteran and parishioner
at St. Jude Church in Jacksonville, will be the first to say that these dogs,
including her lab mix Domino, are more than just working dogs. They are
lifesavers and almost every volunteer within the organization has a story to
tell about their four-legged companions.

“What the dogs do is give us
hope,” Kirk told the Arkansas Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Little
Rock. “They just give us hope and a chance at life again.”

Before the afternoon training
session Oct. 28, veterans Kirk, Tyler Naramore, director of operations, Carrie
Riley, director of logistics, and David Grimm, dog trainer and past principal
at the former St. Patrick School in North Little Rock, shared their after-war
stories about struggles with PTSD, everything from not wanting to leave the
house for years to always finding the “PTSD seat” wherever they go — a seat with
their back to the wall that has a full view of the exits.

Frances explained PTSD as a
traumatic event or a series of events that have happened to a person and “their
body and mind is stuck in that trauma. … They’re hyper-vigilant, scanning
rooftops, hands” and are often forgetful, Kirk said.

Grimm, who served in Vietnam and
Iraq for the U.S. Marines and Air Force, had stopped leaving the house and
isolated himself so he wouldn’t have to hear “I understand” from those who
couldn’t possibly understand.

“I’ve had people ask, ‘Why don’t
you talk about your experiences?’ And my statement to them is I don’t want to
put them through what I went through,” he said. “But since I have had Ringo, I
get out. A year ago, you wouldn’t see me in a class like this, the room would
be too confining. I’ve gone to some of my grandkids’ games, plays at school.
I’m getting out more.”

Ringo, a 2-year-old Goldendoodle
who was surrendered by his owner, is crucial to calming his fears out in

“I’d get really emotionally
upset if somebody was behind me,” something he and other veterans in the
program often struggle with, Grimm said. “So he’s trained to, if I’m standing
some place, he’s looking behind me. I can be talking to you, but I still see him
and he will move or alert and then I can see what is behind me.”

The dogs are trained to detect
stress and will nuzzle, paw, cuddle or actually lead a person out of a place or
situation if an anxiety attack is happening. Following Assistance Dogs International
standards, the dogs must pass the Canine Good Citizens test, Public Access Test
and specific training for PTSD tasks before certification.

“We admit pheromones when we’re
stressed. They pick up on our stress pheromones and are like, ‘Hey, quit
stressing,'” said Army veteran Chris Wilson, who does not yet have a dog.

Volunteers like Mardy and Audrey
Jones, members of Christ the King Church in Little Rock, help foster and train
dogs while they wait to be placed with a veteran. Much of the training revolves
around putting the dogs in a variety of situations, locations and with various
people and animals to get them accustomed to proper behavior. Although the
Joneses are not veterans, they view this volunteer work as a service to God.

“The Bible can be confusing. But
I can understand that I am to love. I am to love others and to love is to
serve. And to be a service dog trainer, is to serve my fellow man and my dogs
too,” Audrey Jones said. “One morning I was on my knees saying my prayer and I
had one dog cuddled up over here and one dog cuddled up over here and it’s
like, this is God telling me ‘good job.’ And then it’s like these dogs are
God’s love with skin on.”

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Editors: More information about A
Veteran’s Best Friend can be found online at

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Hanson is associate editor at
the Arkansas Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock.

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