Soldiers Find Faithful Companions Through Paws for Vets Program
July 16, 2010 | By Kris O'Donnell | Category: Heroes | 7 comments
Tags: heroes, charity
Robert Connell and Sunny (Photo courtesy of Paws for Vets)
An innovative organization matches Iraq War veterans with service dogs—and gives them a new perspective on life.
ORLANDO, Fla.—Robert Connell is getting used to his new puppy, a black Lab named Sunny, and says she has had an immediate impact on his life.
“It’s huge, just awesome,” he said.
That’s because Sunny is no ordinary pet. She’s a psychiatric service dog and lives with the marine at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
After two tours in Iraq, Connell returned stateside last year and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“You’re sitting there 24 hours a day just staring at the wall, eating all these prescription medications,” Connell said. But then Sunny, who was rescued from a dog-fighting ring, came into his life.
“It gives me something to work towards. I wake up and think ‘what can I do with her today.’ It’s really awesome,” Connell said.
Connell received Sunny through Paws for Vets, an Orlando-based organization that provides psychiatric service dogs to servicemen and women in need.
Founded in December, Paws for Vets is the brainchild of Michele Malloy, who says she got the idea from her dog, Ginger. When Malloy’s eleven-week-old grandson passed away, she went into a deep depression. But once Ginger, a Manchester Terrier, came into her life, Malloy says she immediately started feeling better.
“She made me feel so good that I just wanted to share it,” Malloy said.
According to the Psychiatric Service Dog Society, based in Arlington, Virginia, nearly 10,000 psychiatric service dogs are on active duty throughout the country, working with both the civilian and military population.
Now, the Department of Defense is spending $300,000 to look into the issue, and is currently studying soldiers who are partnered with trained psychiatric service dogs. Craig Love, who is the principal investigator on the project, says a preliminary survey found that the dogs reduced post-traumatic stress symptoms in 82 percent of patients. Forty percent of respondents in the study also reported they used less medication.
Love says each individual has different triggers for PTSD. The dog will recognize a trigger well before the patient does and the dog will let the person know. The dogs also help patients deal with other mental health-related issues such as depression.
“I’ve had veterans send emails to us saying this is my suicide prevention dog,” Love said. “The dog grounds the person and gives them perspective,” he said.
Malloy says she’s seen that success first-hand.
“They don’t want to be in society anymore and these dogs are bringing them out into society.”
Matthew Benack is also stationed at Camp Lejeune and recently received a dog from Paws for Vets. Benack did two tours in Iraq and has been diagnosed with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury. He says 18-month old Rocky is now his constant companion.
“I take him everywhere with me,” Benack said. “He is adapting very well to me as far as doing what he’s supposed to in helping me bridge the gap between me and my family and me and society.”
Paws for Vets covers the cost for the dogs, trainers, vests and identification badges. It’s an expensive proposition and much of the startup money has come from Malloy and her husband. Malloy says her initial goal is to help ten soldiers this year but ideally, she wants to help one hundred per year.
“It makes me feel really good inside, that’s why I do it,” she says. ”I just enjoy watching other people feel good and that makes feel good. I feel like I’ve accomplished something,” she said.
For more information or if you’d like to help Paws for Vets, log on to the website at pawsforveterans.com. You can also contact Malloy directly at 407-405-7120.