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Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 2

At military and veterans' hospitals around the country, dogs are increasingly part of the cure

All Animals magazine, November/December 2010

  • The greatest benefit of Venuto's companionship "is the bond and what he does for me emotionally," says veteran Bill Smith, "because I'm able to handle things better with my family." View a PDF of this story here. David Paul Morris

  • At a Nevada pet supply and grooming store where Christopher Hill buys treats for Verde, the service dog demonstrates his money-handling skills. Danny Moloshok

  • Through Washington Humane Society's Dog Tags program, director of animal behavior and training Kevin Simpson helps veterans train shelter dogs for new homes. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

  • "We have millions of shelter dogs dying to be in service," says dog trainer Tamar Geller, whose Operation Heroes & Hounds teaches wounded and traumatized vets the skills to act as trainers for homeless dogs. Sharon Cavanagh

  • "I just mentally picked up that somebody's watching my back," says Hill of Verde's role in his healing. Danny Moloshok

Since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, the U.S. has asked a great deal of its armed services. As the later war in Iraq dragged on, recruitment rates dwindled—and lower enlistments have forced troops already serving to bear a greater burden. In 2006, a report from the National Security Advisory Group noted that nearly all of the available combat units in the Army, Army National Guard, and Marine Corps had been used in current operations; many Army combat brigades were on their second or third tours of duty.

Those who live through the war may come home wounded, physically or emotionally, and many return wired for a different kind of existence where real and terrifying danger lurks around every corner. But back in civilian life, the very tools a soldier has come to rely on to survive — aggression, hyper-vigilance, willingness to use lethal force — may become a handicap, a way of being that is no longer viable and may, in fact, be harmful to the veteran and his loved ones.

For those troubled veterans who don’t get the right treatment, isolation, frustration, and anxiety can become the norm. A 2009 study found that close to 40 percent of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans treated at American health centers during the previous six years were diagnosed with PTSD, depression, or other mental health issues. A 2010 report noted that 14 percent of Army personnel were on a prescribed painkiller like morphine or oxycodone.

Some traumatized soldiers are slow to seek help, and the consequences can be serious. A smattering of veterans returning from the wars have been charged with crimes including domestic violence and murder — tragedies that, experts have suggested, might have been prevented if those involved had received counseling. Suicide rates have been rising, particularly in the Army and Marine Corps; in 2009, more than 300 service members killed themselves.

The path toward mental health can be a long one. “What’s difficult about engaging men and women with PTSD for treatment is they’re inherently avoidant,” says Michael Jaffe, an independent psychiatrist who’s worked with veterans since his residency at Stanford. He now consults with Paws for Purple Hearts, the group whose dogs Hill first encountered at the Palo Alto center. “It’s very traumatic to talk about; it’s very traumatic to be around people who want to help you with it. ... How do you help something you don’t know someone has? How do you help with something they don’t want to talk about?”

Treatment of PTSD typically involves a combination of medication and psychotherapy. But some doctors and therapists are discovering that for certain kinds of pain, the best medicine isn’t morphine. It’s canine.

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