Fayetteville, AR -- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder isn't an uncommon thing for war veterans to experience upon their return to the United States. One local organization is assisting veterans across Northwest Arkansas with the help of furry friends.
Soldiers for Service Dogs started 3 years ago and is now helping veterans all across Northwest Arkansas who are suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries.
"Having a properly trained service dog provides that unconditional love to our veteran and supports them in ways that other humans can't." Veterans Program Manager for Soldier ON Service Dogs, Elise Burt said.
The organization was started after realizing there was a critical need for service dogs in the area for veterans.
"I've always wanted a service dog because I've been in a wheelchair for a long, long time and the VA wouldn't approve me of one so I didn't know what I was going to do until this came up and I'm like in heaven." Vietnam War Veteran, Jonathan Christopherson, said.
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Soldier ON's clients are veterans who have been certified as having debilitating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and/or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) by the Veterans Administration (VA). All of our veterans have a disability rating of over 50%. In most cases our veterans are rated by the VA as being unemployable. It is important to note that in many cases our veterans have additional disabling physical issues.
PTSD and TBI are medical conditions which are life-long. One is not "cured" of PTSD or TBI. Rather, Soldier ON's veterans are taught how to use a service dog to help mitigate their symptoms on a 24/7 basis.
You cannot simply give a trained service dog to one of our veterans and say "good luck". Our veterans' physical and/or mental disabilities manifest, from a delivery of services perspective, as learning disabilities and constrains such as short term memory loss, severe pain and, inability to focus.
Since November of last year (2015), Soldier ON Canine Program has made great strides. We have been offered hundreds of dogs and puppies. We did not accept most of these “sweet dogs” into the program because of their breed or their age.
We can’t accept any of the so-called bully breeds. No Rottweiler’s. No pit bulls. No Dobermans or Chows. The military establishment simply doesn’t allow them. And, we really don’t want a service dog that might instill fear in the public at large just because of their looks. We want to encourage positive social interaction between the public and our veterans.
We also don’t take dogs who are too young or too old. We won’t accept a puppy that is 6 weeks. We’d like them to be at least 8 weeks. On the other hand, we don’t take dogs over 2 years of age.
Over the last 12 months we’ve evaluated over 50 dogs. We have a 3-page form we fill out on every dog. During the evaluation we drop things. We entice them to take a treat from us. We look for both behavioral and temperament issues. We want to make sure they have some drive, but not too much. We are looking for willingness to work without being too exuberant. They have to want to be with people.
A dog is a man's best friend, and for veterans home from war who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), a dog just might be a life saver as well.
Angie Pratt, founder of Soldier ON Service Dogs (SOSD), is well acquainted with the benefits injured veterans receive from service dog companions. After a close relative, a marine bomb technician, was injured in Afghanistan and began experiencing the effects of PTSD and TBI, Pratt began researching treatments. She discovered that a service dog could be a great benefit, but there were no service dog organizations in the area. She founded SOSD as a 501(c)(3) organization in September 2014 and set to work providing trained service dogs to local veterans suffering from PTSD and/or TBI at no charge to the veteran.
"People may think they don't know someone with PTSD, Pratt says, "and I'm here to tell - you do. You just may not know it."
SOSD estimates that nearly 1,000 of the 14,000 veterans in Northwest Arkansas who have PTSD and/or TBI would benefit from having a service dog. Service dogs detect seizures, disrupt nightmares, call 911, reduce the need for medication, mitigate anxiety, reduce stress, and even save lives.
But she won't share that sweet face with a stranger on the Bentonville square quite yet. She's in the zone. So is Brittany Vandevort, her 16-year-old trainer.
Spirit has learned to sit and stay, and when a stranger approaches, that's just what she does -- with no aggression. Vandevort, seemingly without thought, offers Spirit a treat for this good behavior.
But once Vandevort says OK, Spirit will jump in that stranger's lap and shower him with puppy dog kisses.
Spirit is a puppy in training for Soldier On Service Dogs, based in Fayetteville. Vandevort will raise and train the dog for about one year "or until she's no longer a puppy," said Angie Pratt, president and executive director of Solider On Service Dogs.