Canine comfort for returned warriors
April 20, 2010
The influx of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years has turned the spotlight on mental casualties rather than physical: a 2004 Pentagon study showed that one in six returning veterans suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or anxiety.
Various alternative medical treatments have been developed to combat and heal veteran’s psychological wounds. A relatively new form of therapy involving four-legged friends has shown considerable promise, and this summer, Friends of Animals Utah (FOAU) plans to start a canine rehabilitation program in its own backyard.
"We’ve always wanted to use animals for therapy purposes," says FOAU Executive Director Cathy King. "I think it’s a great way to rehabilitate animals and people at the same time."
When the local nonprofit started planning its new Rescue and Rehab Ranch a few years ago, the staff talked about implementing equine therapy for people with mental disorders in conjunction with an equine rescue program.
They envisioned a program similar to what the National Ability Center does, but focusing more on mental disorders than physical, King says.
As they began to research successful programs involving animals, they realized that canines are catching up to their equine counterparts in the realm of rehabilitation and therapy for people.
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Research has shown that dogs can help lower blood pressure and have a calming effect on humans. King says she was overwhelmed by the amount of information available about dogs being used to treat disorders including PTSD, depression, anxiety and autism.
"Since we’re already opening a facility with dogs, it seemed like that would be the best place to start," she says.
Following the grand opening of the Rescue and Rehab Ranch in Brown’s Canyons on June 26, trainers will begin using the facility to train a group of dogs that they rescue from euthanasia lists at shelters.
The pilot program will allow veterans who receive treatment for PTSD through the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Salt Lake City to work with the dogs as part of their therapy. The goal is to provide a second chance for animals and veterans by pairing them together to live a quality life.
FOAU has assembled a team that will be responsible for coordinating and instituting the program.
Suzanne Demarest is serving as the program manager. Her background is in marketing, project management, and business development, and she has personal experience with special-needs children and alternative therapies as well as rehabilitating dogs. She is in charge of the business aspects of the projects, including planning and procedures, budgets, schedules, and marketing of the project.
Patrick Mahoney is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist who has worked extensively with veterans on other projects. His job will be to perform clinical evaluations to determine if veterans are good candidates for the program.
Sausha Seus will lead the training operation as the canine behavioral specialist. Seus is an expert in the field of human/canine relationships, owns a local dog training business, and is known for training wolves for film and other forms of media. Her job is to evaluate the rescued dogs for behavioral issues and to customize training programs with special consideration toward individuals with PTSD.
The dogs will be put through an intensive 4-to-6-week training program during which the veterans will come to the facility to work with the trainer and have a chance to interact and bond with the dogs. According to Seus, the training is based on the Positive Re-enforcement Method and will focus on socialization/bonding, manners/boundaries, problem solving, obedience and praise.
Demarest stresses that the program is two-fold. "There’s nothing haphazard about this," she says. Maloney and Seus will work collaboratively to pair veterans with dogs that match their needs and personality. They will also assist each veteran with issues that may be unique to their PTSD diagnosis and therapy program as related to the dog and their developing relationship. The veterans will have the opportunity to adopt the dog after they have completed the program and follow-up will ensure that the adoption is successful.
It is the goal of the program to help these animals find new homes with someone that needs a lifeline after having experienced great trauma; together they can heal and have a new lease on life. There is incredible power in the human-animal relationship and studies show that companion animals significantly improve mental and physical health.
King sees the program as a continuing effort that will eventually expand to include training dogs to work with autistic children, victims of abuse and people with other mental disorders. "This is really just a kick-off for training dogs to work with people in all different situations who are in need of types of therapy that dogs can provide," she says.
She’d even like to introduce the program in the local prison system, something that has been quite successful in other areas. The prisoners are responsible for training the dogs and are with them 24-7 during the training period. "It gives them a purpose and it becomes a very important part of their life," King says.
FOA is currently competing in GlobalGiving’s Global Open Challenge to raise start-up money for the program. If the organization is able to recruit 50 donors by April 26, they’ll secure a permanent place on http://www.globalgiving.org and have a chance to win $6,000 in prize money for raising the most money during the challenge.
"It’s a great way to get a project out there for funding – not only on a local, but on a national and even global level," says King.
As of April 19, they have raised $5,690 from 41 donors. A community donor has agreed to match all funds raised through the site up to $25,000. King says they hope to receive federal funding as well, which is possible because the government is spending several million dollars to determine whether dogs might speed recovery for veterans.
For more information about FOAU’s canine rehabilitation program, visit http://www.globalgiving.org/projects/dogs4vets.