Service dogs help veterans cope with PTSD

José Romero, a 42-year-old army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, never thought a dog could change his life.

“When I left the army, I was in pretty bad shape. I was having nightmares, I was sweating and I had a lot of anxiety. I didn’t want to leave my house,” he said to NBC News in an interview.

His outlook was bleak, he said, until he was paired with a service dog named Poppy.

K9s for Warriors, an organization that has rescued more than 1,500 dogs from shelters and trained them as service dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, paired Romero with Poppy – an Australian Shepherd – in June. The Puerto Rican veteran said Poppy was the help he needed to stay alive.

“In the military, we don’t always try to get help because we want to be all we can be. But you have to seek help,” he said. “I tried to kill myself three times. And I’m still here because I got help.

José Romero, a 42-year-old army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, with Poppy, an Australian Shepherd.Courtesy of José Romero

Carl Cricco, CEO of K9s for Warriors, said by email that ending veteran suicide is the program’s core mission. He pointed out that many veterans “found renewed enjoyment in life and significantly reduced their medication” after being paired with a service dog.

Romero was born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, and raised in Staten Island, New York. He joined the military in 2001, aged 22, after enlisting in the National Guard in Puerto Rico a year earlier. While he initially joined the military to pay for his education, he eventually wanted to pursue a career in the military.

“I was deployed twice,” he said. “In Afghanistan, I worked in the S-1 office [human resources] do paperwork. And I went on a mission too. That’s why I have my combat infantry badge. In Iraq, I was in the infantry. I was cleaning houses and doing a lot of heavy stuff, like ambushes.

Romero served six years in the military and was later diagnosed with PTSD. Now the support he gets from Poppy, he says, is helping him get out more and stay independent.

“You can take an assistance dog everywhere with you. For example, when I go to a store to pay, I don’t like having someone behind me because it makes me anxious,” Romero said. “And Poppy stands behind me to make sure nothing happens. And she knows that when I have anxiety, she comes to me.

Romero, who works at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, said few veterans know about K9s for Warriors.

His wife, Brenda, who is a psychiatric nurse practitioner, encouraged him to request a service dog. While he had to wait five years for Poppy, he credits his wife and service dog for showing him how life can be better.

“If I had killed myself, I never would have lived to see my twin girls,” Romero said. “I never would have seen how beautiful life could be.”

How service dogs can help

Maggie O’Haire, associate dean at the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine, studies K9s for warriors as part of her research into how humans interact with animals. Veterans, she says, are in trouble.

“They face depression, anxiety and higher suicide rates than civilians,” she said. “If you look at the numbers, veterans are dying by suicide at more than double the rate of adult civilians. And they are three to five times more likely to suffer from depression than people without PTSD.

O’Haire said while the stories of veterans partnering with service dogs are inspiring, it’s data and science that determine “what insurance will cover, what funders will pay, and what clinicians will approve”.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, states on its website that “there is not enough research to know whether dogs help treat PTSD and its symptoms.” However, the PAWS law, signed into law in 2021, requires the VA to conduct a five-year pilot program to test service dogs for eligible veterans with PTSD.

So far, O’Haire said, participant-based research from K9s for Warriors shows that veterans with service dogs have significantly less difficulty.

“They have clinically lower levels of PTSD symptoms – around 25% lower. They have 30% less depression and 10% less anxiety,” she said. “If we look at quality of life, they report having three times the overall psychological well-being. And for those who have a job, there is five times less absenteeism from work for health reasons.

But getting a service dog for veterans with PTSD is always a challenge.

“The waiting list for service dogs averages two years. It was average before Covid. Right now we know the average has gone up to five years from the day of the application,” O’Haire said. “That’s one of the reasons we try to put science and research on the table, because funders who support organizations are looking for data.”

A “very in phase” Labrador

Alejandra Figueroa, 42, is a Mexican American veteran who enlisted in the military a day before her 23rd birthday in 2003.

She was deployed three times: first to Guantanamo Bay, then twice to Afghanistan. During his nine years of service, Figueroa performed many duties, including customs and border patrol, corrections and detainee transfers, and perimeter control.

Figueroa now works for the Los Angeles County Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. But she said when she left the military in 2012, her life was in a very different place. Figueroa didn’t know much about PTSD and tried to live without treatment.

Army veteran Alejandra and her service dog Hardee.
Army veteran Alejandra Figueroa and her service dog, Hardee.K9 for warriors

“My mum was actually the very first person to tell me that I probably had PTSD. And then it was confirmed by a job I applied for and didn’t get,” he said. she explained. “They said the main reason I didn’t get the job was because of PTSD. And in 2019, that’s when I started getting treatment at the VA Later, my psychiatrist recommended that I examine a service dog.

K9s for Warriors partnered Figueroa with Hardee, a black Labrador mix, in June. She said Hardee made her more aware.

“He is very in tune with everything around me. And he’s also really good at making myself understood,” she said, referring to Hardee. “Sometimes I don’t understand what he’s doing, but then I realize he makes me feel a certain way and that’s why he does.”

Cricco, CEO of K9s for Warriors, said the organization wants to empower veterans to live with “dignity and independence”.

For Figueroa, who has a lower back injury that can sometimes make walking difficult, his service dog not only helps him get back on his feet physically, but also uplifts him mentally to achieve that independence.

“Hardee is like a life companion. But I don’t want to feel like I’m living in a cell,” she said. “I wanted to have a service dog more for independence, so I could go out and handle things on my own without having to continually burden others.”

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