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Talking about mental illness is trendy, but going beyond talk is challenging. Recently, my husband and I watched a program on PBS about Patriot Paws, a disability service and support organization that pairs highly trained service dogs with military veterans. In the beginning of the documentary, we meet several vets who are struggling to return to civilian life—often because of severe PTSD. Their eyes are haunted. They have particular needs for help—perhaps with socializing, trust, or mobility. We can’t know what they still see in their minds, but we know they’ve seen more than the human psyche can absorb without repercussions. In the case of Patriot Paws, the dog trainers are incarcerated women, also emotionally scarred.
Many military families are disappointed when a loved one never really returns from combat. The person who does may be closed-off. Even people who love the returning service person very deeply may not comprehend what has happened or be able to do anything to mitigate the damage. Therapy, where available, is lengthy and often includes powerful drugs with side effects. The best therapeutic assistant may not be a human but a dog.
In Patriot Paws, located in Texas, the dog trainers work with their human clients, helping them to understand how to communicate with the canines. The trainers themselves can empathize on some scale with what it is to feel isolated and out of touch with society. When the training is nearly complete, the dogs are asked to select their owners. People who have never adopted a rescue dog may be surprised to discover that the dogs do this task extremely well. They read people.
By the end of the program, the veterans are not cured but changed. They smile as they never did before. They sleep better and feel safer in the world. They have animal partners who don’t judge but are unfailingly loyal. Those of us who love animals understand what animal love feels like—a gift we don’t have to deserve. Certainly, some dog owners betray it. Rescue organizations such as Villalobos Rescue Center (featured in the TV series PIT BULLS AND PAROLEES) intervene for dogs who have been unmercifully abused or neglected. (Can you believe owners will move away and leave the family dog trapped inside an empty house to starve to death?) The founder of Villalobos, Tia Torres, rehabilitates both dogs and parolees emerging from prison to trust themselves and others once more—most often with spectacular success. Staff members frequently comment on how fulfilling seeing people and dogs find loving companions can be. We all want to feel like our lives make some kind of positive difference in the world, and the staff members of rescue organizations or service organizations such as Patriot Paws luxuriate in that knowledge. Even people society has pushed aside discover they can still matter. Similar programs cling desperately to their funding, because the mainstream thinks they’re expendable.
Modern society often has no time and little assistance for people who can’t keep up with the physical or emotional pace. Veterans aren’t the only ones who lose trust or purpose or companionship and consequently, hope. Ask anyone in law enforcement and they’ll tell you people with nothing to lose are dangerous. They’re easily manipulated into anti-social behaviors. A companion—especially an animal companion that has been trained to be responsive to emotional needs—or a chance to train animals can change the story. Two rescue dogs that are certainly not well trained eased my husband and me through the pandemic lock-down. Our doggie buddies aren’t always ideal additions to the home, but they’re essential.