K9s for Warriors: Service Dogs Fighting the Veteran Suicide Epidemic
Army signal support specialist Becca developed post-traumatic stress disorder when she deployed to Iraq between 2009 and 2011. Barrages of enemy fire and the constant explosions of mortars and RPGs left her with hypersensitivity to noise, distrust of strangers, and persistent nightmares. Anxious, depressed, and struggling with addiction, Becca frequently considered ending her life.
Things began to improve after Becca started caring for her partner’s dog. Responsibility for another life “got her out of bed, forced her to walk outside, and gave her one of the only purposes she felt she had.”
Thinking that a service dog may help to improve some of her PTSD symptoms, Becca took to the internet. An online search led her to K9s for Warriors, a veterans service organization based in Ponte Vedra, Fla. that pairs post-9/11 veterans who have been formally diagnosed with PTSD, military sexual trauma, or traumatic brain injury with specially-trained service dogs. Becca applied for the program.
Not long after K9s for Warriors paired Becca with service dog Bobbi in Aug. 2018, a transformation was underway. Becca was smiling again. Bobbie gave her the confidence to challenge herself to new tasks, such as going out to public places and resisting the urge to self-isolate.
With Bobbi’s support, PTSD no longer dictates the terms in Becca’s life. Her once recurring thoughts of suicide have retreated. Becca recently marked two years of sobriety, and “looks forward to a long and happy life with Bobbi by her side.”
Becca and service dog Bobbi. Image courtesy of K9s for Warriors
Service Dogs Save Lives
Among providers of service dogs for veterans, K9s for Warriors stands out. Some providers charge hefty fees, or supply dogs with insufficient or irrelevant training, a side effect of the unregulated nature of the service dog industry. K9s for Warriors, which is accredited through Assistance Dogs International, tailors each dog’s training to the requirements of its future owner. In addition to being taught standard obedience commands and appropriate behaviors for interacting with the public, K9s for Warriors’ service dogs may be trained to detect and disrupt periods of anxiety and to watch a veteran’s back in public spaces to increase their sense of safety.
K9s for Warriors invites small groups of program participants to its training facilities, where veterans spend three weeks learning to use their dogs’ unique skills, and bonding with their new service dogs.
Not only does K9s for Warriors assume the cost, estimated at $27,000, of training each service dog, but the organization also covers food, board, equipment, and veterinary care while service dog and veteran undergo training. The only cost to veteran participants is their transportation to and from the K9s for Warriors facility.
To date, the nonprofit organization has improved, if not outright saved, the lives of its 641 program graduates. It has also saved the lives of some of its 1,231 trained service dogs, the majority of which are adopted from high-kill shelters.
Service Dogs for PTSD
PTSD may affect an estimated 23 percent of the 2.7 million service members who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. Symptoms vary, but can include the abuse of substances, suicidal ideations, depression, risk-taking behaviors, and aggression.
There is growing interest among the veteran population in using service dogs as a complimentary treatment for the symptoms of PTSD. The Department of Veterans Affairs, however, does not endorse the use of service dogs for treating PTSD. Instead, the VA treats PTSD with evidence-based therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy and medication.
Unfortunately, these evidence-based therapies suffer “high dropout and non-response rates” and are not always effective. A 2020 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association found that clinical trials of the two primary types of therapy the VA utilizes, prolonged exposure therapy and cognitive processing therapy, only led to recovery or improvement in 31 percent of patients. According to a 2016 review of VA therapies cited by the New York Times, medications prescribed for PTSD are ineffective around 40 percent of the time “and sometimes cause debilitating side effects.”
In 2010, in response to concerns about the high suicide rate in the veteran community, Congress charged the VA with studying the effectiveness of trained service dogs in mitigating PTSD symptoms. Ten years later, their study has yet to appear. Stalled twice in 2012 on account of issues with service dog health and temperament, the first part of the VA’s study, detailing the effectiveness of service and/or support dogs for veterans with PTSD, was first promised for 2015, and then for summer 2020.
Meanwhile, the veteran suicide epidemic has not abated. Between 2013 and 2019, 45,120 veterans died by suicide. The VA stated in a 2019 report that twenty veterans end their lives through suicide every day.
In the absence of the VA’s service dog study, Congress put forward the bipartisan PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act as an attempt to provide more immediate care for veterans. Passed by the House unanimously in February 2020, the act would fund a five-year pilot program to train and provide service dogs to veterans with PTSD and “other post-deployment mental health issues.” The VA, according to the New York Times, “is refusing to endorse any new stopgap service-dog program before its internal research is complete.”
K9s for Warriors’ Studies
While the VA’s research remains unpublished, K9s for Warriors has produced a variety of metrics that demonstrate service dogs’ effects on PTSD symptoms. The organization’s 99 percent rate of success in preventing suicide is one of the highest among similar veterans service organizations. Additionally, the organization reports that, though its participants are prescribed an average of 10-14 medications when they arrive at a K9s for Warriors training facility, “92 percent reduce or eliminate medication use” after graduating.
K9s for Warriors has also partnered with Purdue University on a series of studies into the effects of service dogs on PTSD. The first study, released in 2018, found that graduates of K9s for Warriors’ program had “better quality of life, and better social functioning in addition to more regulated production of the stress hormone cortisol” than veterans on the K9s for Warriors waitlist. Program graduates also demonstrated lower instances of “anxiety, anger, and sleep disturbances as well as less alcohol abuse,” and “experienced a 12-point drop, on average, on the VA’s standardized PTSD checklist.” Study author Kerri Rodriguez concluded that service dogs are “an effective complementary treatment [with] significant effects on multiple areas of life.”
A second study, released in 2019, aimed to understand the impacts of the methods veterans employed in training their dogs. The study also found that the severity of a veteran’s PTSD did not impact their ability to bond with their service dog.
A study released in July 2020 demonstrated how veterans used their service dogs. Researchers found that the average veteran used their service dog’s trained skills 3.16 times per day, and that veterans rated the disruption of their anxiety as the most beneficial task their service dogs were trained to perform. According to Rodriguez, Purdue’s latest study demonstrates that veterans “are, in fact, using and benefiting from [a service dog’s] specific trained tasks, which sets these dogs apart from pet dogs or emotional support dogs.”
Purdue University is currently engaged in a three-year clinical trial in concert with K9s for Warriors to determine the long-term effects of using service dogs to treat PTSD.
Service Dogs Bring Hope
K9s for Warriors’ metrics are accompanied by the personal stories of veterans whose service dogs brought a permanent end to their battles with suicidal thoughts.
Jodie, a former Army infantryman and civil affairs specialist, hoped to find a service dog to assist him with the PTSD that made him wary of public spaces. He spent a great deal of money in search of a service dog before looking into K9s for Warriors. In Nov. 2019, the organization paired Jodie with service dog Donna.
Jodie and service dog Donna. Image courtesy of K9s for Warriors
Now, Jodie and Donna have “an inseparable bond.” Donna helped to free Jodie from his PTSD symptoms, and she allows him to explore the world with a new excitement. Jodie reports that Donna “has saved him from suicidal thoughts by being there for him when he would otherwise be alone, which is when he struggles most with PTSD and depression.”
Though Donna “doesn’t eliminate the feelings altogether…she definitely helps Jodie recognize what is going on and react to it appropriately.” Donna’s training “breaks the thought process and brings Jodie a little joy during a dark time, giving him that little push to snap out of it.”
For K9s for Warriors graduate Will, who spent 18 years in the Army before becoming a police officer and volunteer firefighter, PTSD left him feeling like a “cold and empty shell.” He “had no idea how low his depression was, and how close he was to checking out,” he says, before his K9s for Warriors service dog Rio became his “lifeline back to society.”
Not only did Rio teach his owner “to feel and love again,” but the service dog improved Will’s physical health. Before being paired with Rio, Will’s resting heart rate was documented at around 103 beats per minute. It now sits at 89 beats per minute.
With Rio’s help, Will now “faces his demons head on.” He no longer struggles with thoughts of suicide.
Will and service dog Rio. Image courtesy of K9s for Warriors
Battling Suicidal Thoughts
Like so many American organizations, K9s for Warriors’ mission has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Due to social distancing constraints, its 18-month wait list has doubled, and accepted veterans must now wait nearly three years to receive their service dog partners. The organization is looking to expand its facilities in Ponte Vedra and is creating a second facility in San Antonio, Texas, which should decrease its wait list by at least half.
For veterans who meet K9s for Warriors’ criteria, a service dog may be an important way to mitigate PTSD symptoms and thoughts of suicide. For those in need of more immediate help, K9s for Warriors’ graduates offered insights on how to battle back the darkness.
Jodie urges his fellow veterans to “be proactive in this fight, not reactive.” Having a plan and knowing how to combat difficult feelings before they strike is imperative, whether that means calling a friend, having a place to go where you are not alone, or finding something to “take your focus off the things your mind is telling you.” Though tunnel vision “can narrow your thinking”, Jodie says, veterans should remember that they are never truly alone.
Becca encourages veterans to seek out the full “variety of amazing programs around the country that aim to combat mental illness in veterans.” She has personally explored “everything from traditional therapy, to groups that hike the Appalachian Trail, to K9s for Warriors.” Becca believes that “the way these groups think outside the box when it comes to ‘therapy’ can spark some hope and excitement in a veteran who really needs unconventional help.”
There are resources for veterans dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts. If you or someone you love is affected, please reach out to any of the following:
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