Rescue Dogs and Warriors Unite

To read the full story, which first appeared in Consumers Advocate, go here.

James Rutland, a 12-year Army veteran who served in both Iraq and South Korea, left the military in 2014 after multiple medical conditions related to his service – things like a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI), sleep apnea, and hearing loss, among others. James also suffered from depression, so severe that he became to consider suicide.

After attempting to heal from the trauma on his own and finding no solace, James did find it in a dog named Dunkin. Day in and day out, Dunkin works with James to perform specific tasks that quiets the symptoms of war trauma disabilities in soldiers, and acts as emotional support too.

“I started focusing on ‘we’ instead of ‘me’, James says. “What is life without Dunkin?

James found Dunkin through K9s For Warriors, a Florida nonprofit that trains rescue dogs in order to pair their services with soldiers. Specifically, they train the canines to deal with symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), or military sexual trauma (MST), as a result of military service that happened on or after 9/11.

And because the organization is specifically using rescues, they see it as saving two lives: the dogs, and the soldier’s.

Tiffany Baker has a similar story. An Army National Guard soldier, she was traveling in a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle in Afghanistan when it hit a 250-pound IED. The bomb was so powerful it rolled the heavily-enforced vehicle.

Tiffany sustained major physical injuries, requiring four hip surgeries the next year. She also suffered a traumatic brain injury because of the attack, and was taking 17 medications at one point. She became a frequent face at the VA, seeing a counselor and a handful of psychiatrists and psychologists, who were rotating on her various medications without much progress. She began to feel more and more isolated.

In 2015, after medically retiring and saying goodbye to her unit, Tiffany met Buddy through K9s For Warriors, a rescue who had been badly abused and neglected by his owner.

“Going into the public was very difficult. Buddy always covers my back. He’s ‘got my 6,’” she says. “K9s For Warriors is great at pairing the dog with veterans.”

Basically, Tiffany says Buddy creates a safe barrier between her and other people, allowing her to function in public – and giving her an additional purpose.

“I need to get out of bed [everyday] to take care of him,” she says.

Shari Duval started K9 For Warriors a few years after watching her own son, Brett Simon, suffer from PTSD after his return from Iraq. He completed two tours, and developed PTSD after the first.

Watching Brett suffer from the debilitating condition motivated Shari to research alternative treatments to the standard talk therapy and medication, neither of which had worked for her son.

“On average, soldiers take 14 meds a day to treat PTSD, TBI, or MST,” Shari says. If treatment is not working, she says veterans are prescribed more and more drugs. “I even knew one soldier who was taking 44 meds per day.”

After two years of researching alternative PTSD treatments, she came upon a program that paired service dogs to alleviate symptoms in veterans – which was an ideal solution, considering Brett had spent 13 years as a canine police officer. After Brett began to use a service dog, he saw his symptoms steadily improve, and his progress inspired Shari.

The K9s For Warrior program was born soon after.

To date, the program has rescued more than 850 dogs and 440 military service members, with an astounding 99% program success rate.

“The skillsets our dogs learn help these warriors with anxiety, isolation, depression, and nightmares,” says Shari. “So that these warriors can function again in public.”

Specifically, their program trains rescue or shelter dogs to perform four specific tasks: averting panic attacks, waking warriors from nightmares, creating personal space comfort zones in public situations by standing in front of the veteran (barrier), and reminding warriors to take their medications.

Shari Duval and Ben Simon
Shari Duval and Ben Simon

Recently, K9s partnered with Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine to study the effectiveness of service dogs as a complementary treatment for military members and veterans who suffer from PTSD.

Dr. Maggie O’Haire, assistant professor of human-animal interaction, says that the study found that symptoms were significantly lower in veterans with service dogs. “The initial findings showed lower depression, lower PTSD symptoms, lower levels of anxiety, and lower absenteeism from work due to health issues,” she says.

To learn more about K9s For Warriors, their pilot study, and how you can help (or introduce someone in need to the program), read more here.

And always remember to thank those who have served – and are serving – to protect this country.

This story was originally published by Consumer Advocate. Read the complete story here.

James Rutland and Dunkin
James Rutland with Dunkin

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