Humans and animals have always shared a powerful bond—one that has been a source of solace, relief and inspiration for those who suffer from physical or emotional pain. We know from years of experience that the human-animal bond is a source of powerful healing, whether they are children suffering from cancer or military men and women who have suffered the stress of battle. Service dogs, in particular, are an amazing, positive resource for assisting our nation’s best and bravest though their physical pain and mental anguish.
Given the increasing number of veterans returning from long deployments—often serving multiple consecutive tours as never seen before in the U.S. military—and many requiring mental health services, rates of mental health care use have steadily increased, taxing the health care system at large and creating a need for additional support sources. American Humane Association can meet this need through the Service Dogs for Veterans program, which assists veterans in adopting and training a shelter dog as a service dog.
American Humane Association has long been a leader in a field of study and practice known today as animal-assisted therapy and was the first to introduce animal-assisted therapy in this country with veterans returning from WWII in 1945. American Humane Association provides animal-assisted therapy services to the health care, child welfare, education and military fields. Through our nationwide partnerships, animal-handlers and therapy animals positively affect hundreds of lives a year.
Through our Service Dogs for Veterans program, when a veteran is identified by a mental health professional as possibly benefiting from the continuing and ongoing use of a service dog as a tool in the treatment of PTSD, traumatic brain injury, panic attacks, anxiety, depression or a bi-polar disorder, American Humane Association will assist the veteran in adopting and training a shelter dog as a service dog.
Program instructors work with groups of veterans and their new dogs to learn basic mobility and public access skills, as well as how to navigate public transportation, busy shopping centers and restaurants. Depending on the needs of each individual veteran, training may also include instruction on how to cope with panic attacks or other mental and physical health needs. Training is done almost entirely in a group atmosphere, which reflects the veteran’s combat training “battle buddy” mentality, and also allows the dogs to quickly become accustomed to being around groups of people and other dogs.
Because service dogs are in such high demand and the time to fully train a dog and then transfer that training to the veteran can take up to a year or more, most service dog training programs have waiting lists of one to two years. In addition, the cost of a trainer through other therapy programs is approximately $1,500 per dog trained—a cost that is usually put on the veteran. By using shelter dogs, American Humane Association’s Service Dogs for Veterans program places little to no cost on the veteran outside of the basic ongoing expenses of caring for a dog.
Furthermore, American Humane Association’s Service Dogs for Veterans program is a train-the-trainer program, whereby the veterans themselves train their own service dogs, enabling the veteran to facilitate meeting his/her own needs for the rest of their life because they will now have the knowledge to train a new dog when their dog is no longer able to serve. The heroic stories of these service dogs will be collected and highlighted at American Humane Association’s annual Hero Dog Awards™ program, educating millions of Americans nationwide on the human-animal bond and celebrating the heroes on both ends of the leash.
Not only are animals sources of comfort and companionship, but studies show that interacting with dogs has a positive psychosocial effect on people with psychiatric disorders. PTSD service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks in order to help their owners manage their PTSD symptoms, such as prompting the veteran when it is time to take medication, entering a room before the veteran to check it for the presence of others and alerting the veteran if anyone is approaching him/her from behind. Some of the benefits that PTSD service dogs are reported to have on their owners include an increase in patience, impulse control and emotional regulation. Veterans with PTSD service dogs report improved sleep, decreased startle responses and a decrease in pain medication. Through the help of trained service dogs, veterans are able to engage in positive social interactions and reintegrate back into civilian life.