A passage from William Shakespeare’s classic drama, Julius Caesar, refers to Caesar’s soldiers as “the dogs of war.” Actual canines have been put to military purposes for ages, and today the phrase brings to mind the many dogs deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan who, with their enlisted handlers, do essential work for the war effort.
In addition to providing protection for military personnel and supplies, specially trained dogs are used to search roads, vehicles, buildings, and other areas for explosives and weapons caches, and their very presence is a psychological deterrent in areas of the world where dogs generally inspire fear.
These days, dogs continue their service to soldiers even after the battle ends. Various programs throughout the country train dogs and place them with veterans who need physical and emotional support back home.
Service dogs are indispensible to veterans who have been blinded or rendered deaf by their war injuries and can help amputees balance on artificial limbs, retrieve dropped items, and lift themselves into and out of their wheelchairs.
A recent pilot study sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs studied the effects of assistance dogs on people with mobility or hearing impairments and found that they provided major benefits. Many VA hospitals are now including service dogs in their treatment plans for disabled vets.
Psychologically, dogs help veterans cope with feelings of isolation, despair, and depression. The unconditional love and devoted companionship of a trusted canine can make life worth living for many who find it difficult to adjust to life at home after the trauma of battle, whether or not they have suffered physical injury.
Tragically, there is a suicide epidemic among veterans of our wars in the Middle East. Dogs may be a key to reversing this trend. Various studies have suggested as much, finding that people with disabilities generally feel more independent, socially engaged, and content with life when they are partnered with trained assistance dogs.
In late July, the Service Dogs for Veterans Act was incorporated into the Defense Appropriations bill that passed the Senate. The legislation would establish a pilot program within the Veterans Administration to pair specially trained canine companions with disabled vets.
Program participants would be evenly split between veterans with mental health disabilities and those with physical injuries. Scientists would track any therapeutic benefits experienced by the veterans, as well as the positive economic impacts of using service dogs, such as savings on prescription drug costs and improvements in a veteran’s employment prospects.
There are dozens of organizations that offer to pair trained service dogs with veterans, but it is generally agreed that not all have the experience and expertise required to do the job right. One way to make sure that a dog is properly trained, that an appropriate placement is made, and that follow-up services are available is to select an organization accredited by the non-profit Assistance Dogs International. If you or someone you love could benefit from such a program, visit the association’s website at www.assistancedogsinternational.org to peruse a list of accredited members.
One group in the greater Bay Area, Paws for Purple Hearts (part of the Bergin Institute for Canine Studies in Santa Rosa, formerly The Assistance Dog Institute), has come up with a program that helps vets in two powerful ways. Veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) learn how to train service dogs for their comrades who suffer from physical disabilities, providing both individuals with practical help and important emotional benefits.
Dogs’ exemplary service in the war zone has long been acknowledged. Now their value as companions for wounded veterans is becoming equally obvious.
To Learn More
Here are some ADI-accredited organizations that offer service dog programs for veterans. Visit their websites to learn more or to support them with financial donations or other resources. It takes approximately $25,000 to procure, maintain, and train a service dog.
- Canine Companions for Independence, www.cci.org
- Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, www.neads.org/services_new/military_dog.shtml
- Freedom Service Dogs, Inc., http://freedomservicedogs.org
- Paws for Purple Hearts, www.assistancedog.org/about_us/PPH.html
- VetDogs, www.vetdogs.org
Peggy Greenfield is a freelance writer who posts missives from the wilds of Northern California.