A VETERAN’S BEST FRIEND
PTSD and suicide are plaguing America’s veterans, but Valor Service Dogs is fighting back by training and placing companion animals that can really make a difference.
BY PAUL ROBERTS
For some soldiers who come home, the war never ends. Post-traumatic stress disorder affects somewhere between 11 and 20 percent of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These men and women—who witness horrific acts of violence and survive life-threatening situations—often suffer from nightmares or flashbacks, are easily triggered to extreme anger, have trouble relating to others, and experience severe anxiety that makes it difficult to lead a normal life.
PTSD is categorized as a mental condition, but it has serious physical symptoms, as well. Someone suffering from PTSD might experience high blood pressure, increased heart rate, and rapid breathing. They might also fidget with their hands uncontrollably, nervously tap their feet, or experience muscle tension, nausea, and diarrhea.
Veterans who suffer from PTSD often try to fight this battle alone, and because those around them don’t know the signs to look for, the problem often goes untreated and exacerbates. It is a major reason why 22 veterans take their own lives every day.
But what if a veteran had a constant companion who knew exactly what to look for? What if he or she could rely on this friend to not only recognize the symptoms, but to soothe the anxiety in an instant? And what if this friend never took a day off and never left their side?
It might seem hard to believe, but there are such friends in the world. They just aren’t human.
Valor Service Dogs is a non-profit charity that trains and places mobility assistance and PTSD service dogs with post-9/11 veterans in need. Led by executive director Carol Lansford, Valor trains golden retrievers to not only be able to physically help wounded vets get around in day-to-day life, but to interrupt episodes of anxiety and provide comfort.
According to Carol, training the dogs for physical assistance is the easy part.
“Picking things up and bringing them to you is in their bloodline,” Carol says. “They are pathological retrievers.”
Once Carol has trained a dog, it can do everything from fetch a remote control to a prosthetic that a veteran left in another part of the house. Trained dogs can also offer their bodies as props to a disabled vet lying on the floor who needs help getting up.
Getting a dog to recognize nervous tics and respond is trickier, but accomplished by positive reinforcement.
“Everything we do is positively based so we can teach them things that aren’t natural to them because we make it so fun to learn and they want to try harder,” Carol says. “They get treats when they try hard. We also don’t train with any physical corrections for the reason that they might be going to someone who is paralyzed or without limbs, so having control over your dog with a leash or a physical correction doesn’t work if the next owner can’t give that correction. Everything we do is a verbal command and we don’t use any type of hand signals.”
In all, Carol says dogs learn about 80 commands, like opening the refrigerator, pulling shoes and socks off, and even unzipping a jacket and taking it for a veteran who doesn’t have use of his hands.
Carol is a psychology graduate with a certificate in canine behavior psychology. Her husband Justin served in the 82nd airborne and was injured in Afghanistan on April 12, 2012 when an IED blew up under the rear axle of his vehicle. The truck flipped and Justin was pinned underneath, losing his left leg as a result.
Carol moved to Washington to be near Walter Reed Army Medical Center during her husband’s recovery. There she became a government-contracted service dog training instructor, one of only four in the nation. Two years later at the end of Justin’s physical therapy, they moved to Florida where she founded Valor Service Dogs to continue the work she started in Bethesda.
Justin explained the dogs’ ability to intervene with veterans suffering from PTSD: “If you’re tapping your leg really hard they’ll come and punch you on the leg. If you’re fiddling with your hands, they’ll break your hands apart. If you’re rubbing your face – they learn to interrupt those stress cues.”
In January, the Robert Irvine Foundation issued a $20,000 grant to Valor Service Dogs. Buying the dogs from a breeder and paying for supplies and veterinary care to last through training is expensive, about $10,000 to $12,000 per dog, meaning the grant will just about cover the costs associated with two dogs.
“The work that Carol and the rest of her team are doing is phenomenal,” Robert said. “When I learned what these dogs can do—that they’ve actually been able to prevent suicide—I had to support them. If we could get one of these amazing, highly trained dogs into the homes of all veterans who need them, can you imagine what that might do for the suicide rate? We need to support all efforts like this.”
Valor took part in the grand opening of Robert’s Gold’s Gym in Largo, FL, to help raise awareness for their mission. Carol and Justin were on hand with volunteers Kyle Pletzke and Ben Burgher. Burgher’s foster dog Huey also made an appearance.
Pletzke is a veteran who was injured in late December of 2012 while on patrol. The vehicle he was riding in rolled over; he was ejected from the vehicle and pinned underneath it, suffering a crushed pelvis and other injuries. After three years of rehab at Walter Reed, he’s moving well with some assistance from experimental leg brace.
“A lot of guys wear them,” Platzke says. “It gets them back into running, it’s kind of the last step before a prosthetic. It allows you to keep your leg, keep things intact and stay active.”
Platzke doesn’t use a dog himself but has spent a lot of time around Carol and her training and has seen what the dogs can do. He says beyond specific assistance, the dogs are in instant morale booster. “They never have a bad day and that immediately makes your day better,” Platzke says.
After seven years of active duty, Burgher left the Air Force, went back to school, and now works in the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department. He got to know Justin and Carol as neighbors and immediately appreciated the work they were doing. He volunteered as a puppy coach and raised Huey, who will one day go to a veteran. His work with the Sheriff’s Department also helps him raise awareness for service dogs by bringing Huey to meet local businesses, not all of whom know how to deal with service dogs. Justin says restaurants in particular are often flustered, sticking him and his service dog in a far corner of the dining room.
“We advocate a lot for service dogs and the veterans who have them,” Burgher says. “We’re answering questions and putting out all this information for the veterans who can have a dog so they can just be a regular dude. Just go through society. We want them to know how they should act around a dog, (don’t pet it). Stores and restaurants are sometimes hesitant.”
Judging from the smiles Huey brought to the members at Gold’s Largo, Valor Service Dogs earned a few more supporters that day.
To support Valor Service Dogs and learn more about their mission, visit: www.valorservicedogs.org.
This article originally appeared in Robert Irvine Magazine: www.RobertIrvineMagazine.com.