By Jennifer Larson, contributor
July 3, 2012 - Any veteran will tell you that war is hell, and fighting for freedom always comes at a price.
It’s even harder for the veterans who are seriously wounded. They face a long recovery process--a new type of battle that’s full of uncertainties and hard work.
Freedom Dogs accompany wounded veterans on daily errands, helping them with their physical and emotional rehabilitation.
But it doesn’t have to be a situation that they face alone. For a growing number of military personnel, they can lean on man’s best friend to help them out.
Beth Russell, RN, founded Freedom Dogs in 2006 to help members of the armed forces who were injured during their service. The goal was to partner wounded vets with specialty service dogs and their trainers to ease the rehabilitation process and help the veterans adjust to their new lives.
Russell has a background in ICU and trauma nursing, so initially she figured that her new organization would work with paraplegics, quadriplegics and people who had lost limbs. But during a six-month pilot project, it became apparent that the dogs could also help service personnel with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Today, Freedom Dogs, which is based in Southern California, has helped about 14 men and women in the military through the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego.
“I am humbled daily by these men and women who are struggling so hard, and it seems like the struggles are never going to end,” said Russell. “But they never give up.”
Freedom Dogs utilizes specially trained psychiatric service dogs that are able to work with multiple people with different disabilities. The organization works with breeders to obtain Labrador puppies with the right temperament; they begin their training as early as eight weeks.
Monty, the newest Freedom Dog, is named for the Montford Point Marines.
The first dog to participate was Russell’s own dog, Charlie, a black Labrador retriever who’s now 10 years old and semi-retired; the newest dog is a puppy named Monty, after the Montford Point Marines.
The program pairs the service member with a team that’s comprised of a dog and trainer. First, the service member has an initial meeting with the team to see if it’s going to be a good fit. Then they begin meeting for regular appointments, usually on a weekly basis. Twice a month, the veteran is required to go somewhere with the dog--to a doctor’s appointment, to the grocery store, to class, or wherever they may need to go where they could use some support from the dog.
Russell noted that the military members are referred to the program by doctors, case managers and others. The trainers follow a medical care plan that’s provided by the health care providers because this is considered a type of treatment.
“We file reports just as if you were a nurse filling out your shift report,” she said. “We work very closely with their care providers.”
A dog makes a difference
The presence of a dog makes a huge impact on the lives of the people who participate in the program.
A Freedom Dog is shown with a U.S. Marine who was just awarded the purple heart.
“These men and women with PTSD do not go out,” Russell said. “Their lives are very secluded. Things startle them that we would never imagine.”
Many have withdrawn from the world around them, and are often fearful of crowds or loud noises. But a dog makes a difference.
“What the dog does is give them a sense of confidence,” Russell said.
And they begin to develop a bond with the dog and trainer. It is that bond, that extra boost, that gets them to agree to go out in public. It sometimes takes a lot of time and energy and encouragement, but it does happen.
Russell noted that after a certain amount of time in the program, the participants begin taking better care of themselves. They start exercising again. They take their medications. They are involved with their families. The dog doesn’t make all of that happen, of course, but the constant positive reinforcement from a dog helps them develop the confidence to make those changes.
“It’s the dogs,” Russell said. “But it’s also the trainers.”
The trainers are very special people, she explained. Many of them have relevant backgrounds: nursing, special education, the military, etc., and all of them have received additional education on PTSD and TBI. And all of them have given of their time and themselves to dedicate countless hours to helping a person they don’t even know. It’s a time-intensive commitment that could be daunting for some people, but the trainers remain focused.
Charlie, the first Freedom Dog, shares a moment with his Marine at an official ceremony.
Freedom Dogs has a second component that allows the permanent placement of a dog with a participant. There are two dogs that are currently being groomed for permanent placement; the transition process usually four to six months. After that, there’s an 18 month probation period, so the dog and the participant continue to meet regularly with the trainer to make sure things are going okay.
Of course, even after that, they’re still part of the Freedom Dogs extended family.
“Once they’re in the program, they never get to leave us,” said Russell.
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