My family was invited last year to attend the annual sporting clays tournament held by Soldier’s Best Friend in Phoenix. I was asked to be the volunteer veterinarian for the event, and I was honored to help — along with my husband, daughter and several family friends.
The nonprofit Soldier’s Best Friend was started by a fellow veterinarian, Dr. John Burnham, and is dedicated to pairing and training service dogs with military veterans who are living with combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.
The organization also makes a positive impact on the pet overpopulation problem as it rescues dogs through a network of rescue groups and shelters.
If a veteran already has a personal dog, and it meets the age, behavior and temperament standards, it is possible for their own dog to participate in the program.
Burnham says the veteran and dog train together to build a trusting relationship that saves two lives at once and inspires countless others.
At the tournament, I saw veterans with Chihuahuas, cocker spaniels, huskies and many mixed breeds. The veterans and their dogs intermingled with everyone.
The love shared between the dog buddies and the veterans was amazing. These dogs were trained to do a number of amazing tasks to help their partners with their symptoms of PTSD or TBI.
The dogs travel with the veterans, staying at their side in public places such as restaurants, grocery stores and on buses, helping to ease any anxiety the veteran may experience.
When in a crowded environment, the dog buddy stays between the veteran and other people, creating additional space. The dog alerts the veteran when someone walks up from behind and even reminds them to take their medications.
The dog buddy helps immensely with several personal or public issues that may suddenly arise for the veteran. An example might be the dog making physical contact when it senses rising anxiety.
With a small dog, this physical contact might involve jumping up on the veteran’s lap and possibly licking his or her face. A larger dog may just step on the veteran’s foot or lick the veteran’s arm or hand. A medium dog may jump up on the veteran’s hip and lick the veteran’s arm or face.
As one veteran told me, his dog “provided tactile stimulation to disrupt his overload when needed.” He also said his dog buddy “woke him up from flashbacks and nightmares by licking, nudging or pawing him gently.”
Another veteran told me her dog would support her in coping with the fear of an intruder and even turn on the lights in a dark room.
A veteran in a wheelchair said his dog definitely helped him meet women, probably because of his wonderful way and smile — and that magnificent husky by his side.
But his dog also retrieved medication and beverages, fetched his cell or landline phone in an emergency, answered the doorbell, opened and closed doors, carried medical supplies if needed, reminded him to take medication on time, helped him cope with medication side effects, alerted him in an emergency such as a smoke or carbon dioxide alarm, and even woke him up for work or school.
Although Soldier’s Best Friend serves only Arizona, there are many similar organizations here in California, such as Paws For Life K9 Rescue, America’s VetDogs, Pawsitive Teams, Paws Assisting Veterans (PAVE), to name a few. The California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) has a list of many more.
We can all support our veterans and their partner dogs by donating or volunteering. As Burnham says, by serving veterans who gave so much to protect us and our freedom and giving homeless dogs a loving home and purpose, we can “touch two lives at once.”