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We all know that dogs can provide us with comfort, protection, and unconditional love. Therapy and service dogs like those from Soldier’s Best Friend take this canine companionship to another level.
Since its creation in 2011, the Arizona-based nonprofit has paired more than 90 veterans with therapy and service dogs who have successfully completed Soldier’s Best Friend’s training program. This organization’s mission is to improve the lives of the courageous men and women who served overseas in the U.S. military and now struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
PTSD affects hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who have been in combat. In Arizona alone, it is estimated that more than 120,000 war veterans live with varying effects of the condition, said Brenda Meir, operations manager for Soldier’s Best Friend and wife of a Marine veteran. To help these veterans manage the symptoms of PTSD or TBI and readjust to civilian life, Soldier’s Best Friend provides them with much more than a pet. “People with extreme mental health challenges often need a nonjudgmental, caring presence: someone they can just hold or be with, and interact with on a very different level than their friends and family members,” Meir said.
What makes Soldier’s Best Friend even more special is that it is dedicated to helping save Arizona’s homeless dogs and reducing pet overpopulation. The organization has taken in more than 80 dogs from local rescue groups and shelters, and it has trained them to become therapeutic canine companions and service animals for the veterans in the program.
Finding the right dog to match with each veteran can take time, Meir explained, but once the dog has been selected, the pair enters into Soldier’s Best Friend’s intensive training program ― with facilities in Flagstaff, Prescott, Phoenix, Tucson, and Sierra Vista ― which takes six to nine months to complete in order for the dogs to graduate as service animals. “Our goal is to graduate 50 teams in 2015, and our ultimate goal is 75 teams in 2016,” she said.
Each dog is chosen based on two important criteria: First, the dog must be deemed capable of doing the work; second, the dog’s size and temperament has to be a good fit with the veteran’s lifestyle. Breed preferences can be considered after the first two conditions are met, Meir said. Most of the time, medium- and large-sized breeds are best adapted to the work that is required of these therapy and service animals, but Soldier’s Best Friend has worked with many breeds, including a Chihuahua. And if a veteran has a personal pet who meets the behavioral standards for the program, Soldier’s Best Friend can train the pet, too.
Just what are these very special dogs able to do for their veterans? For a dog to be a certified service animal of any kind, Meir said, the dog must be trained to perform a minimum of three tasks specific to the owner’s disability. “There are four categories of tasks that help mitigate psychiatric disabilities, such as PTSD,” she said. “[They are] help in a medical crisis, help with treatment, help with emotional overload, and help with security.”
Service dogs are able to accompany their owners in public places, such as restaurants and buses, to help ease anxiety. Often the simple presence of the dog, and being able to touch and focus attention on the animal, can alleviate symptoms of PTSD and TBI.
For veterans Damian and Mark, who both live with PTSD, being paired with a service dog through Soldier’s Best Friend has changed their lives for the better.
Damian’s service dog, Bella, is a young Shepherd mix rescued from the Arizona Humane Society by Soldier’s Best Friend. She has allowed Damian to start living his life again, and he couldn’t be happier. “Soldier’s Best Friend has helped me regain a large part of my life,” Damian explained. “PTSD does not have to be a life sentence. With help, treatment, and organizations out there like Soldier’s Best Friend, the effects can be minimized so that you can live a more normal life within society and not worry as much.”
With his service dog Logan, also rescued from the Arizona Humane Society, Mark feels more comfortable leaving his house and going to places where there might be a crowd. Logan has accompanied Mark on numerous plane trips and even a cruise. Mark credited his service dog with the feeling that he’s become a part of society again. “They [therapy and service dogs] give us new meaning and purpose to life, a battle buddy to look out [for], and someone we can trust to always have our back,” Mark said. “Soldier’s Best Friend has given me back a life that I lost once I returned from Iraq.”
For Soldier’s Best Friend, pairing veterans and rescue dogs benefits everyone involved. “The dog gets the attention he or she needs. The human gets the love he or she needs,” Meir said. “Saving two lives at once!”
Learn more about this amazing organization at the Soldier’s Best Friend Facebook page.
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About the author: Crystal Gibson is a Canadian expat in France who teaches English by day and does freelance work by night (and on weekends). She’s written for Dogster.com and Catster.com since 2013, and has been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul. When she’s not traveling, teaching, or writing, Crystal is taking care of her Dachshund mix, Pinch, and needy Sphynx cat, Skinny Mini. She can be found on Twitter at @PinchMom.