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Pets for Vets: How Dogs Help Veterans

The numbers are staggering, frightening and sobering. As of September 2014, there were 2.7 million American veterans just from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has been estimated in 11 to 20% of those vets. For 2013, that was roughly 12,632 soldiers. Since 2002, 118,829 warriors have been diagnosed with PTSD. Also, there are an estimated 15% of Vietnam vets diagnosed as having PTSD.  A 2013 Veteran Affairs study showed an average of 22 veterans commit suicide every day

Why?  For many of these soldiers, they are still in Afghanistan, Iraq or Saigon; the lands where they fought for America.

Imagine the complexity of this (partial) list of PTSD symptoms these warriors face: Flashbacks. Nightmares. Frightening thoughts. Avoidance and staying away from places. Losing interest in previously enjoyable activities. Feeling guilty. Feeling numb. Depression. Hyper-arousal. Feeling tense. Being scared easily. Having uncontrollable outbursts. Difficulty sleeping. Alcoholism and drug addictions. Their individual symptoms compiled can lead to an emotional paralysis.

Think of going to the movies. It’s enjoyable for most people. With PTSD, it can become an anxious nightmare. It’s dark, crowded, and people are whispering. There are frequently sudden outbursts of screaming or laughing. To someone already tense and hyper-aroused, this is a hellish road to flashbacks — and just one example of how difficult normal, daily living can be. The price they paid for war can leave them emotionally — and physically — crippled.

Enter the dogs. There are two types of dogs that can be used to assist veterans. One is a service dog. These are trained with specific commands based on the needs of the veteran. They might do things like “Block” their owner, offering the protection of a barrier and space. “Lights” tells the dog to go ahead and turn on lights so the owner doesn’t have to enter a darkened room. “Sweep” orders the dog to enter a room or house first, sweeping it for people and barking to alert the veteran they are not alone. “Bring” tells the dog to fetch an item and bring it back. For veterans with limited mobility or vision challenges, these skills are invaluable. For anyone with tension issues, these dogs can offer a true sense of security.

The second type is an emotional support dog, which are not necessarily specific-task trained. They offer comfort and companionship. They provide a safe refuge from flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks or other anxious moments. Health benefits for vets just having a dog range from decreasing their loneliness and anxiety to providing comfort and exercise. Dogs help vets with socialization challenges, reduce their stress and improve their self-esteem. Veterans often cite they feel shut down, afraid or unable to engage with family and friends anymore. The accepting nature of the dog breaks those barriers. The dogs can sense when their person is having a flashback, nightmare or panic attack and can bring them back. They do tasks difficult or impossible for vets to do and have even been credited for saving the lives of their owners on occasion.Dogs provide a safe refuge from flashbacks. Click To Tweet

The best part of all this? The dogs! Some are previously owned by the vets, and trained for their specific needs. Many more are shelter dogs who have been taken in by the numerous groups who provide dogs to vets and now have both a forever home and a wonderful new purpose in life. A dog’s life is saved and now a soldier is helped and healed.

Groups all over the US provide trained dogs or training for vets. In North Carolina, there is Paws4Vets. Their “primary mission is to train and provide qualified individuals with certified assistance dogs custom trained to fit their individual requirements and needs.” (They also service VA, WV, OH, PA, MD, SC, GA and FL)

In Asheville, we have Warrior Service Dogs, a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization that “provides disabled Veterans with specially trained service dogs to assist them in their path to recovery and everyday life.” They can be found at and on Facebook at

Nationwide places to check include: Hawaii Fi-Do (serves Hawaii), K9s for Warriors, Pets for Vets, Freedom Service Dogs, Patriot Paws Service Dogs, Service Dog Project, Inc. (serves New England area), New Horizons Service Dogs (FL), Inc., Sam Simon Foundation (CA), America’s VetDogs, Canine Companions for Independence, Canines for Service, Paws and Stripes, Paws for Purple Heart- Bergin University of Canine Students and Warrior Canine Connection.

The above is the final segment in a three-part series about pets enriching lives outside the familiar home setting. Ryan Jo Summers is a Hendersonville author and animal advocate. To learn about her recent big news see her website or her blog


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