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Service dogs help war veterans cope with PTSD

Published: Sunday, July 22 2012 10:23 p.m. MDT

One of her worst nightmares had come true. Christin Barden, who experienced sexual trauma in the military and who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, was trapped in an elevator at her office with three men. She was without her trusty service dog Bravo. All she had was his picture on her badge.

Barden started to panic, but then she closed her eyes and thought of Bravo. Taking out his picture, she imagined gently petting his black fur. In her mind, Bravo was suddenly in his normal place right there beside her. The three men disappeared. She was alone now with Bravo and nothing else mattered. Instead of panic, she felt calm and peaceful.

"It was the longest five minutes of my life," Barden said. "But he got me through it even though he wasn't there."

Barden served in the Air Force during the first Gulf War. She was medically discharged after three years and has struggled with concussions and PTSD for more than 10 years now. She has tried many options, including therapy, counseling and medication, to ease her pain. Her service dog Bravo, however, was the only thing that really worked for her.

Despite the large number of veterans who say military service dogs are effective in the struggle to cope with and recover from the symptoms of PTSD, access to the dogs became more restrictive and regulated this year because of a new army policy. The dogs do not work for everyone, but their potential positive impact has some veterans on waiting lists 500 names long and "knocking down doors" to obtain them.

Barden is one of many Americans who struggle with PTSD daily. The disorder affects 7 to 8 percent of the civilian population and 12 to 13 percent of military personnel, said Steve Allen, PTSD coordinator for Veteran's Affairs in Salt Lake City.

"People can have difficulties in establishing and maintaining close relationships," Allen said. "They can have difficulty driving and getting around in the community and they may have issues controlling their temper and become angry for seemingly small reasons."

Bravo, Bravo

Service dogs are trained to help veterans who suffer from PTSD or other disabilities. Organizations like Paws and Stripes help train young dogs and veterans together so they build strong relationships.

"There is a biological reason that the dogs make (veterans) feel better," said Lindsey Stanek, Paws and Stripes CEO. "There is a biochemical reaction when they are around the dog and endorphins are released. The dogs help them to calm down and may make things seem more manageable."

Stanek said service dogs help veterans with crowd anxiety and personal space and mobility issues common to PTSD.

Paws and Stripes has a waiting list of more than 500 veterans but resources and funding are scarce. Insurance companies do not cover the cost of a service dog for a veteran, Stanek said.

"We have never had to solicit potential enrollees," she said. "They have pretty much been knocking down our doors to do this from day one."

Barden recalled that PTSD negatively affected her work and personal life.

"It got to the point where I stopped going to the movies," she said. "I would try to pick fights with anyone, even if it was the biggest guy in the theater."

After many turbulent years she discovered Paws and Stripes and was introduced to Bravo. She recalls how Bravo bounded up to her, licked her hand and sat at her feet.

"We instantly had a connection," Barden recalls. "I fell in love with him as soon as I saw him."

Tightening the leash

Matt Kuntz knows firsthand the effects PTSD can have. His brother committed a PTSD-related suicide years ago, and Kuntz worried his friend was headed down the same path.

Kuntz, the executive director for the National Alliance for Mental Illness in Montana and a veteran himself, saw on Facebook that his friend, Jim Lacaria, was struggling with PTSD and needed help. Through a recent online petition, Kuntz advocated for a change in military policy.

"The new military policies were preventing him from accessing his service dog and that was only making his condition worse," Kuntz said. "I have successfully advocated for this stuff before and it is really close to my heart."

The policy Kuntz is fighting was issued by the Army Medical Command in January shortly after a dog at a military base in Fort Campbell fatally mauled a young boy. The policy stipulates that active duty service members must have command approval in order to obtain a service dog. It also states that a panel of healthcare professionals such as behavioral and physical therapists will determine further eligibility. The panel will consider whether a service dog would likely mitigate a specific disability. Under the policy, Assistance Dogs International is the only accredited private service animal organization authorized to provide service dogs to service members who aren't blind. The policy also provides training standards, established by Assistance Dogs International, which the dog and owner must follow.

The policy is the first comprehensive policy to address the many uses and benefits of animals in a healthcare setting, said Maria Tolleson, media relations specialist for the Army Medical Command, in an email. She said while previous policies existed, their scope was too narrow and not applicable in all situations. The policy provides guidance where none previously existed, she said.

"As stated in the new policy, the Army Medical Command recognizes the benefits of trained service dogs in a variety of settings for soldiers with both physical and psychological needs," Tolleson said. "Our priorities are the welfare and safety of all our soldiers and their families, and our policy helps to ensure that service dogs meet the criteria to provide this support according to internationally recognized standards."

A petition

Kuntz recognizes the need for the policy but disagrees with the particulars. He posted his online petition through Change.org and received mass support from veterans and civilians alike. The petition has more than 1,000 signatures and hundreds of comments and testimonials. The petition makes three main points:

  • Military service dogs not be classified as a last resort for treatment, meaning soldiers should not have to exhaust every other treatment option before being allowed access to a service dog

  • Adequate housing should be accessible for all veterans and their dogs

  • The standard of certification of service dogs should be broadened so that Assistance Dogs International is not the only organization that can offer accreditation.

    The bottom line, Kuntz said, is that the new policy limits veterans' access to service dogs, and that will not help to curtail a growing problem. Suicide rates have spiked this year among military personnel, with an average rate of one suicide per day, according to Pentagon statistics.

    "There is no doubt that is tied into PTSD," Kuntz said.

    Kuntz was not about to let his friend become another statistic after seeing him cry out for help.

    "I was deeply afraid that Jim would commit suicide without his service dog," Kuntz said. "I think they have to change the policies in the midst of the suicide epidemic that they military is facing. Hopefully they'll do it quickly because there is a lot to be lost in the meantime. They can't let barriers stand between soldiers and treatment."

    Many organizations face accreditation issues and encounter problems meeting the required standards for dog training and dog performance, Stanek said.

    "There need to be expectations and parameters put in place, but they also need to be reasonable," she said.

    Barden and others say service dogs have been tremendous helps, so organizations like Paws and Stripes will likely continue to have veterans knocking down their doors for years to come.

    "By far Bravo has been my most successful form of treatment," Barden said. "I have a dog who wants to be around me and loves me unconditionally. I think we'd have a much better world if every person could have a dog with them."

    Stanek has seen 20 pairs of veterans and dogs graduate from Paws and Stripes, including Barden, and feels rewarded by the solace and comfort the veterans get from having a service dog.

    "This is not going to work for everyone but veterans seem to connect well with animals," she said. "I think they are just tired of having pills shoved in their face."

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