Saving Lives at Both Ends of the Leash

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By Heather Bennett Eye

The Emerald Coast is home to numerous military bases and we are proud of the service members who call our community home. We deeply appreciate these brave men and women who have chosen a path of service and sacrifice. As we express our gratitude for their dedication, let’s not forget the challenges many veterans face.

Statistics reveal that 11-20% of veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom suffer from PTSD, and around 12% of Gulf War veterans are affected by the same condition. Mental health issues extend beyond PTSD with nearly 30% of veterans reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety. Tragically, these challenges contribute to a high rate of suicide among veterans with 22 veterans taking their own lives each day.

Healing Paws for Warriors Inc Training Class Group PhotoHealing Paws for Warriors, Inc. is a veteran-founded, veteran-led 501(c)(3) in Fort Walton Beach that works to bring awareness to veteran suicide and reduce these statistics by rescuing and training service dogs to pair with combat veterans faced with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and MST (Military Sexual Trauma) along Northwest Florida from Panama City to Pensacola. Through reducing the number of dogs in shelters and empowering veterans, Healing Paws for Warriors is working to “help save lives at both ends of the leash.”

Trainer Lisa Russell finds dogs from local shelters that have the potential to make great service dogs. The dogs undergo 12 weeks of training. This training includes learning to pick up items like credit cards and keys, and the ability to stabilize someone who needs to stand. Once the dogs are trained, veterans are paired with a dog and the two of them, as a team, undergo 8-10 weeks of training at their own pace. “It takes some time,” said volunteer and Interim Executive Director Dennis Krebs. “They have to get used to each other, they have to know each other, and how they act and react.” Sometimes initial pairings don’t work, and they’ll find the veteran another dog. “The big key for us is we’re trying to set veterans up for success.”

Studies have shown that veterans with service dogs reported a 22% higher reduction in PTSD symptoms compared to those without, and 82% of veterans reported a decrease in suicidal thoughts after getting a service dog. Some have reported improved sleep patterns, increased social interactions, and shown significant improvements in quality of life.

The service dog program through Healing Paws for Warriors, Inc. is completely free to veterans who qualify. Veterans can apply directly on their website. There are basic criteria that applicants must meet, but those who qualify won’t be turned away. If a dog cannot be found immediately, they will keep looking for a perfect match. Additionally, if a dog paired with a previous graduate terms out of their service abilities, the veteran will be invited back to train with a new dog and the old dog can become a comfort/emotional support animal.

If you’ve ever been interested in fostering a dog, this would be a great opportunity for you to honor veterans. “The great thing about our foster program is we provide the food, the crate, dog toys, and a 24/7 connection in case there’s a problem with the dog, so the trainer can be notified,” said Dennis. “If we have the right amount of fosters, for the amount of dogs we have, that saves us money from having to pay for kenneling them, so it can go back into the program.”

Dogs usually need a foster home from one to three months, and everything they need is provided. If the foster needs to go on vacation or a weekend off, they will go to another foster home while they are away. While the fosters are not responsible for training the dog, it is recommended that they continue with basic commands and reinforce positive behaviors.

Another way you can help Healing Paws for Warriors, Inc. is through volunteering. “We have so many events, and we need volunteers all the time,” said Dennis. Outreach in the community is typically military-oriented, such as hosting events at the American Legion. Volunteers are needed to hand out brochures and merchandise and discuss the application process.

Graduation for this round of veterans and service dogs was on June 22 at the Air Force Armament Museum. Volunteers are always needed to assist with the coordination of graduates and guests and photography of the ceremony. Graduations are open to the public.

Healing Paws for Warriors, Inc. is also reaching out to other organizations such as One Hopeful Place, a local homeless shelter, in order to pay it forward. “The community has been so supportive of us,” stated Dennis. “We all need to support each other. It’s a great community that we live in and we can do so much by pooling our resources together. We’re starting to reach out to other organizations to assist them.”

If you are interested in the application process, fostering, volunteering or donating, please visit the Healing Paws for Warriors, Inc. website at https://www.healingpawsforwarriors.org.