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Dogs are helping comfort veterans diagnosed with PTSD

A pilot program is being offered in Alaska, California, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas thanks to the PAWS Act, which calls for dog therapy.
Posted at 3:31 PM, Mar 14, 2023

Signed into law August of 2021, the PAWS Act requires the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct a five-year pilot program where veterans diagnosed with PTSD train service dogs for other veterans.

Andres Ortiz-Rodriguez is a veteran who started training a dog named Linda last November.

"My stepdad was in the Army," Ortiz-Rodriguez said. "He was in a tanker at Fort Knox, so I kind of just wanted to follow in his footsteps. My brother joined the Air Force. He deployed to Kuwait."

Ortiz-Rodriguez was deployed to Iraq in 2011. A couple years ago, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He says the mental health doctor is the one who told him about Paws for Purple Hearts

Erica Horn is the senior program instructor of Paws for Purple Hearts.

"Paws for Purple Hearts is a nonprofit that provides a really unique program called Canine Assisted Warrior Therapy," Horn said. "And that's a really unique aspect of our program where we partner with VA and DOD facilities locally in the area, and groups of veterans or active-duty service members actually help partake in the training of our service dogs for another fellow service member. "

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Horn says she was thrilled when asked to participate in a five-year pilot program through the PAWS Act. PAWS stands for Puppies Assisting Wounded service members. The VA says its goal is to explore the benefits of service dog training for veterans with PTSD.

The pilot program being offered in Alaska, California, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas.

"And so the dog can help just by its presence, but also they can be specifically task trained to help bring an individual, maybe ground them in the moment if they're having a panic attack or they get startled by a loud noise or something like that," Horn said. "The dog can provide deep pressure therapy by, you know, leaning against them or nudging them to bring them back to reality."

They're only six months into the pilot program, but Horn says she's already seen a huge difference in the lives of veterans.

"Week by week, I will see individuals open up a lot more and just really make that connection with the dog," Horn said.

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When we sat down to talk with Ortiz-Rodriguez, we saw the impact Linda had on him.

"You learn to kind of just suppress your feelings, just show anger just because realistically you don't have time to show emotion over there," Ortiz-Rodriguez said. "If something hits the fan, you kind of just have to react."

Even though he'll be passing Linda on to help another veteran, Ortiz-Rodriguez says he hopes to get his own service dog, and plans to continue the training program.

"Honestly, like the program has helped out a lot," Ortiz-Rodriguez said.

A psychologist with the South Texas VA says this pilot program has been giving service members like Ortiz-Rodriguez a greater purpose in life and getting them out into the community.

Paws for Purple Hearts says it matches dogs and veterans based on lifestyle and personality to ensure a long lasting and successful match. However, Horn says it means that there is a waitlist for a dog, and because it takes two to three years to successfully complete the training of a service dog in the program, the waitlist can be extensive.

If the pilot program proves to be successful through data over the next five years, the VA says it will be offered as another therapy option for veterans across the country.