‘Dogs Of War’ Help Heal ‘Invisible Scars’ – How Canine Therapy Is Helping Traumatized Veterans

Guest post by Laura Tait, posted by admin.

When it comes to treating military personnel, the US medical establishment is experiencing something of a crisis. With the US embroiled in several conflicts, and the nature of modern warfare being really rather horrific, it is perhaps unsurprising that more and more service people are returning to their home soil with long-lasting conditions which require a lot of treatment. Often these conditions are physical – and great things have been done to improve the lot of physically wounded personnel. However, what of mental and emotional wounds which many of these brave men and women also suffer from? The non-profit organization ‘Paws and Stripes’ is the subject of a new television show on ABC, exploring its pioneering work in the use of therapy dogs to aid veterans with mental injuries. Their work is fascinating, and may open up a whole new (and much welcomed) avenue in the realm of veteran trauma-treatment.

A Major Problem

Conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, while they may not be as visible as an amputated limb or a facial scar, can nonetheless be seriously debilitating. Someone with un-treated PTSD may well experience dreadful mental, social, and emotional handicaps which prevent them from living their lives in a normal manner. Despite this, however, institutions like the VA are struggling to get to grips with the issue, and to tackle what is a growing problem. Because of this, some veterans and their loved ones have tried out a new initiative – therapy dogs for suffering vets. And it seems to be working.

Invisible Scars’

‘Paws and Stripes’ is the subject of a new show on A&E entitled ‘Dogs of War’. In an interview, co-founder Lindsey Stanek speaks candidly of her husband Jim’s struggles with PTSD, and the problems they both had finding effective treatment. Jim returned from deployment with both a traumatic brain injury and PTSD, neither or which the over-burdened VA found themselves able to adequately cope with. Lindsey states that part of the problem stemmed from the fact that Jim’s injuries were neither immediately life threatening nor visible. His brain bears ‘invisible scars’, as she puts it, and the hospital response was usually to numb him with an ever-changing roster of meds which transformed him into ‘a zombie’. Lindsey does not in any way blame the VA for what she describes as ‘putting a band-aid over a huge wound’ – instead, she expresses concerns that the good folks at the VA are somewhat overstretched. “The VA system is so overwhelmed right now; they don’t know what to do with all these vets who are really suffering.

Canine Therapy

Dogs have a proven and impressive track record as therapeutic creatures. Contact with dogs relieves stress, lowers blood pressure, and releases mood-boosting hormones within the brain. They can also be trained to alert those suffering from brain trauma of oncoming seizures, and to press up against their owners – thus providing a calming influence – during anxiety attacks. They cool off potentially violent situations, and provide a distraction from ‘triggers’. Perhaps most importantly of all, they give a sufferer who may have given up on life something to love and live for. Having noted that Jim was calmer and happier around therapy dogs used in Jim’s hospital, Lindsey looked into training their own dog – ‘Sarge’ – as a therapy dog. However, this was not as easy a task as she had anticipated.

Going It Alone

Most animal therapy providers were unwilling to take on Sarge, preferring to send out instead animals which they had trained from puppyhood. This was too costly for a struggling vet family like the Staneks. Even more out of reach were the quotes of those who would train Sarge – ranging from 30 to 60k. Knowing full well that Sarge and Jim were up to the challenge, the Staneks decided to abandon the conventional channels. They enlisted the help of some independent dog trainers, who were willing to train Jim and Sarge together, to become a formidable PTSD-fighting team. And the results were excellent. It’s a wonderful tale of humanity and family-feeling fighting through and beating the emotional aftermath of war – but it doesn’t stop there.

Paws And Stripes

Having experienced the benefits of canine therapy themselves, Lindsey and Jim decided to help out others in their position. Over several years, they built up the ‘Paws and Stripes’ initiative, which aims to provide individualized training programmes for vets and their potential therapy dogs. It’s a fantastic scheme, giving a lifeline to many vets who would not be able to afford the canine therapy they need through conventional routes. If you want to learn more about the project, those it helps, and Sarge, then tune in to A&E network on Sundays at 11pm EST.