Paws for Heroes, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, is dedicated to providing professionally trained shelter dogs with veterans in the Houston, Texas area suffering from PTSD.
What Is PTSD?
PTSD is not a mental illness. It is a reactive change the brain undergoes, after having been exposed to the stresses of war. Many soldiers’ brains stay in combat mode after they come home—and the condition may persist for many years. Their brains tell them to be on high alert for an enemy. They have difficulty sleeping and have nightmares about what they saw and experienced. Being in a crowd can be extremely stressful, because the brain tells the veteran danger could be waiting among the people around him. Emotionally fragile, sleep-deprived and depressed, these soldiers withdraw from family and friends.
Sadly, many former soldiers end up committing suicide. It is estimated that somewhere between 20% and 30% of veterans return home with PTSD. In July 2016, the Department of Veterans affairs released a report estimating that approximately 20 veterans commit suicide every day. This is a slight decrease from the estimated 22 per day from a 2012 report. Many of these suicides are veterans of the Vietnam War as well as more recent conflicts. Vietnam veterans commit suicide at twice the rate of the general population.
How can owning a shelter dog help overcome PTSD?
Scientific evidence of a dog’s impact on humans has been studied for many years. More than 30 years ago, a study produced solid evidence that the act of petting a friendly and familiar dog lowers a person’s blood pressure, causes the heart rate to slow down, makes the breath become more regular and causes tensed muscles to relax. All of these add up to reduced stress.
Recent studies have gone further, showing that a dog actually changes blood chemistry, reducing the amount of stress-related hormones produced by the body. Moreover, the positive effects build up over time. Depression and anxiety can be lessened. Dogs can draw out a person who feels isolated. Praising the dog can help overcome emotional numbness. A dog also reduces a veteran’s hyper-vigilance and sleeplessness, by being a naturally alert soul watching out for him. Bonding with a dog elevates hormones that improve trust and overcome paranoia. Very simply, owning and bonding with a dog causes the brain to produce chemicals that are the direct opposite of PTSD. For a veteran who receives a Paws for Heroes dog, the dog is not a pet. The dog is sometimes the most important relationship in the veteran’s life.
What Does Paws for Heroes Do?
When a veteran applies to us for a dog, Paws for Heroes interviews and visits the veteran’s home to ensure the veteran is ready to care for a dog and the environment is safe and suitable for a dog. Paws for Heroes searches shelters in search of an adult dog that is confident, friendly and owner-oriented. Using service dog criteria and evaluation standards to test the dog, when the right dog is found, Paws for Heroes places the dog in a foster home. After the candidate has been through the foster phase, the candidate receives training by a dog trainer at a professional board and train facility. The dog is also provided up-to-date veterinary care and a microchip. When the dog is placed with the veteran, the veteran also receives dog equipment including a crate, bed, bowls, leash, collar and toys. While all of the staff who work to place dogs with veterans are unpaid volunteers, the direct costs of adoption, training, providing veterinary care and equipping a dog for presentation to a veteran average $4,000-$5,000.