New Government Program Partnering Service Dogs with Veterans Who Have PTSD

by Josh Lanier

Becca Stephens’ life fell apart when she returned home from Iraq in 2010. Her days were punctuated with bouts of anger and depression. And nightmares stalked her when she slept. Doctors diagnosed the combat veteran with PTSD in 2011. She fell into drug addiction to self-medicate, and when that wasn’t enough she considered suicide.

Thankfully, Stephens didn’t become part of the alarming statistic of military veterans that take their own lives. She found help and a companion in Bobbi, a golden Labrador specifically trained to help combat veterans with PTSD, she told NBC News.

Now, Congress is hoping to expand that operation to help more service members who return home with unseen wounds. Officials recently passed a bipartisan bill called the Puppies Assisting Wounded Service members for Veterans Therapy Act. Reports say President Joe Biden will sign the act into law soon.

This will allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to reach out and work with groups such as K9s for Warriors, where Becca Stephens trained with Bobbi. Rory Diamond, CEO of K9s for Warriors, said that three-quarters of the 700 veterans who’ve gone through their program had attempted suicide before being paired with their dogs.

“We’re incredibly good at keeping them alive,” Diamond told NBC News. “So why wouldn’t the VA want to be part of that?”

Sadly, many veterans don’t get the help or intervention they need before it’s too late. From 2005 until 2018, nearly 90,000 vets committed suicide, according to a VA report. Hopefully, this act will provide help to those that desperately need it.

Stephens said she considered suicide before getting Bobbi. Now, she’s able to live a normal life with the dog by her side.

How Service Dogs Help Veterans

Programs such as K9s for Warriors train the service dogs and veterans together. They want the animals to form a bond with their future owners and learn their body language. One of the most common triggers for the dogs is when they sense their owners are suffering an anxiety attack.

“Once they feel comfortable knowing the dog is there, the veterans can be freer. It helps to calm their minds,” said Lu Picard, co-founder of ECAD, an organization that trains service dogs told Roll Call.

The animals help assist with everyday tasks as well. But largely, the emotional support can be enough to give the veteran back a sense of hope.

“Instead of looking at the outside world and being really freaked out about what’s going on, [the veteran] can look at their dog, scratch their dog, love on their dog and calm down,” aid Christel Fleming, a trainer at K9s for Warriors, who is an Air Force veteran

And the service dogs have been incredibly effective. A VA report showed veterans with PTSD who had service dogs were less likely to contemplate suicide than those who didn’t, NBC News reported.

“The dogs can wake them up from night terrors, pull them out of negative flashbacks,” Picard said. “And they know that with the dog, they’re never alone or a burden to any other human being. That’s a big deal.”