Service Dogs for Veterans are More Than Just a Pet
Pets make people happy. After all, it’s nice to have someone so happy to see you when you come home at the end of the day. But beyond the love and bond shared with a pet, there are many benefits to owning a service dog – especially for veterans.
For the brave men and women of the armed forces, returning from overseas can be the start of another battle. They often suffer from a variety of health conditions, ranging from the physical to the psychological.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing issues faced by vets is their rate of suicide. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 veterans a day commit suicide and quite possibly more.
That means that vets represent 18 percent of all suicides, but comprise fewer than 9 percent of the total population.
That’s a serious problem that needs to be addressed…
For these vets, there are several different types of therapies available; one very special sort of treatment to consider is the love, support, and companionship offered by a service animal.
Here we’ll cover are some of the benefits offered by service dogs for veterans and how you can find out more about getting a service dog for yourself or a veteran in your life.
Visible and Non-Visible Disabilities
When most people think of a disability, they imagine something they can see. While in some cases veterans do return from overseas with prosthetic limbs and other injuries you can see with the naked eye, that’s not always the case. Many brave soldiers return home with injuries that can’t be seen.
Veterans have unique health needs not experienced by society at large. In fact, many of the health problems experienced by vets returning from war cannot be lumped into just one single category or diagnosis. Their symptoms can range from concentration and memory problems to pain and fatigue.
The biggest health challenges facing veterans returning home are:
- Mental health issues – The trauma of war can cause a variety of conditions for vets. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the most well publicized, but they also suffer from issues such as depression, violent outbursts, and alcohol abuse.
- Chemical exposure – Service men and women who were exposed to chemical weapons such as blister or nerve agents may suffer long-term heart problems as noted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
- Infectious disease – Soldiers are provided with immunizations to protect them from disease exposure overseas, but there are some infections that vets seem to suffer from at a disproportionate rate that they can’t be vaccinated against. This includes diseases such as Coxiella burnetii (causing heart inflammation), leishmaniasis (a parasitic disease causing weakness, muscle pain, and more) and brucellosis (causing joint pain, cough, and fatigue for years). More information can be found here.
- Vibration and noise exposure – War is loud, which makes hearing impairment or hearing loss an issue for those returning from battle. Vets who worked heavily with machinery abroad also suffer from vibration exposure, causing pain and numbness in the extremities.
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI)– This is caused by a jolt or blow to the head and is an injury that impacts the function of the brain. Blast exposures and other activities related to combat are often the culprits behind the high rate of TBI seen in returning soldiers. It can cause issues with attention span, an inability to process information, and language problems. It can also cause vets to suffer from irritability, anxiety, lack of motivation, depression, headaches, PTSD, and memory loss. Click here for more information on TBI.
As you can see, when many vets return home they are beginning a new fight. Now they must learn how to live with issues related to war as they acclimate into their lives outside of the military.
Service Dogs: Improving the Lives of Veterans
For many veterans, returning home after deployment can be a challenge socially, psychologically, and physically. For veterans with both visible and invisible disabilities, it can be even more challenging – and that’s where service dogs come in.
A service dog is a support for a veteran, a rock they can depend on to help them ease back into their lives at home. Sure, dogs may be slobbery, goofy rocks at times, but a steadfast friend and support nonetheless.
How exactly do service dogs make such a difference in a veteran’s life when they return home? As it turns out, there are a lot of very important things services dogs can do for their owners, including:
- Improved quality of life – Every veteran has a different set of needs upon returning home, but service dogs help to make daily life more manageable. They provide emotional support, complete tasks around the home such as turning lights on and off, assisting in balance work, helping veterans out of their wheelchairs, pushing buttons in public, opening doors, carrying things, retrieving item – the list goes on!
- Easing back into public life – For many veterans, being in public spaces can be challenging due to physical or psychological limitations. Services dogs help provide emotional support to help veterans ease back into the public. This also gets the veteran out and moving, getting the exercise they need both physically and socially to be as healthy as they can be.
- Rebuilding trust – For those who suffer from PTSD, rebuilding trust is important. Dogs are some of the most fiercely loyal creatures in the world and can help a wounded veteran learn to build trust with another again. At first, the trust may just be with the dog, but that will soon bleed over into trust with other people too, with the dog at their side for support.
- Feelings of protection – Dogs help people to feel protected and safe. Many vets suffer from traumatic flashbacks, nightmares, depression, and anxiety. With a dog by their side, it helps to lessen these feeling so vulnerability and help them feel safe again no matter where they are.
- Bring back the love – One of the best things about dogs is the love they give and how easy it is to love them back. Dogs tend to inspire feelings of affection – they’re not called “puppy dog eyes” for nothing!
This video shows just how a service dog can make a difference in the life of a veteran!
How a Service Dog Differs from a Pet
Yes, a service dog is just as much a part of the family as any dog but makes no mistake — a service dog is not a pet.
An animal that completes training as a service dog is allowed by Federal law to accompany its handler into places other dogs can’t go. They can go into public spaces such as hotels, stores, and restaurants.
While not required, service dogs often wear special safety harnesses that let people know they are a working dog and not a pet. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):
A service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.
So, while service dogs are as loved as any dog, they’re there to do a job.
What about Rescue Dogs?
For many veterans, getting a service dog can be a difficult task. The training for many of these dogs is expensive. But over the last several years, organizations such as Patriot Paws Service Dogs have begun to work with shelters to harness the healing power of a rescue dog, training the best and the brightest among them to offer assistance to veterans in need of a service animal.
Often, many of these animals were only lacking the proper training to make them the perfect companion. Once given that, it makes them perfect to be a service animal.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, up to 20 percent of the servicemen and women returning from a mission in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder.
A service dog can help vets suffering from PTSD transition back into civilian life, but the vet is also helping the animal. It’s a good match for two souls who are both seeking to be rescued.
Where Can You Find a Service Dog?
Finding a service dog is not as difficult as you might think! There are great organizations out there that work to pair service dogs with veterans in need of one. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs has a program in place for veterans to get a service dog.
If a vet chooses to go through the VA, their case will be evaluated by a clinician. Remember, the clinician needs to make sure vets are able to care for the dog adequately (or that a family member can) and that a dog is needed to help the veteran with goals they wish to accomplish through their recovery. If they are approved, then they’re referred to an agency that matches service dogs with veterans and the start of a beautiful relationship begins!
Of course, there are other options aside from the VA. Other reputable service dog agencies include:
Luckily, there are many more programs to help veterans find a service dog, which is great because it means that people are beginning to understand how much service dogs can help heroes returning from war to reclaim their lives and begin to heal.
If you feel a service dog would help you, you can do some simple research to find a service dog agency near you. Guidestar.org is a great resource for veterans to help them find service dogs. Just type in search terms related to “service dog” and that should be enough to help you find a non-profit near you and get the journey started.
How Much Does a Service Dog Cost?
The truth of the matter is that it takes time and money to train a service dog and providing a veteran with a dog can be a costly prospect. But where there’s a will, there’s a way!
Training a service dog is a 12 to 24-month process. Organizations that train these dogs can spend up to $33,000 from start to finish. This cost includes training classes, adoption fees, insurance, veterinary care, and office expenses.
Luckily, many of the organizations that provide service dogs for vets are non-profit, so if a veteran meets the qualifications for the program, the service dog is free of charge to them.
How can organizations sustain this? Well, they get their funding from private donors, small business, corporate sponsors, and private grants. Fundraising events are also helpful to raise money to help provide this needed service that changes the lives of veterans and the dogs they adopt.
We take pride here at Paws For Humanity because 10% of our income goes directly to non-profits who train service dogs for disabled veterans.
Can You Train Your Own Service Dog?
If you already have a dog, then you might be wondering if it’s possible to train your trusty mutt as a service dog. The answer to that question is a resounding yes – in the United States, anyway.
It doesn’t matter who trains the dog as a service animal, what does matter is that the dog is trained correctly. According to Assistance Dog International (ADI), the minimum training requirements for the animal include the following. The service dog must:
- Respond to commands (basic obedience and skilled tasks) 90% of the time on the first ask in all public and home environments
- Demonstrate basic obedience skills by responding to voice and/or hand signals for sitting, staying in place, lying down, walking in a controlled position near the handler and coming to the handler when called.
- Meet all of the standards as laid out in the minimum standards for Assistance Dogs in Public and should be equally well behaved in the home.
- Be trained to perform at least 3 tasks to mitigate the handler’s disability.
As a matter of common sense, dogs who have one or more of the following temperaments are unlikely to make good service dogs:
- Show aggression towards strangers or other dogs
- Bark inappropriately
- Snap or growl
- Jump on strangers
- Inappropriately sniff strangers
- Are not potty trained
If you think you have what it takes to train your own service dog, then there are resources available to help you. Here are a couple of resources to help you get started:
Service Dogs for Veterans
A service dog can be a veteran’s first step toward reclaiming their life and finding their new normal after returning from deployment.
Most of us will never be able to understand all that veterans go through when faced with war or the new conflict they’re faced with upon returning home. But we can band together to try and make the transition for veterans easier and successful — and one of the best ways is with the help of a service dog.
We Believe Our Veterans Deserve More Than Just Our Gratitude
Those who risk their very lives to ensure our freedom deserve more than just our gratitude. Respect, honor and support are a bare minimum. That’s why we commit to giving 10% of our income to non-profits who train service dogs for those who return home from service to our country and find it difficult to resume a normal life whether their disability is visible or not.
Brows our shop and if you find something you like, you can buy it for yourself or for a gift and know that your act is helping someone else. A win/win for sure.
Photo Credits: Pixabay