When Man's Best Friend is the Best Medicine
I often think about the hardship and trauma that America’s soldiers experience in serving our country, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or in some other troubled and dangerous part of the world. When it comes to our military service members, the soldiers killed in action are just the most visible victims. For tens of thousands of others, who have sustained physical injuries or experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), life after service is an ongoing struggle. Many have difficulty finding employment, sever important relationships in their lives, and suffer diminished capacity to function in society. They may face their post-war emotional struggles alone, and it may be too much to bear. Mental illness, isolation, and suicide are not uncommon outcomes.
Amid such anguish there is hope. In yet another benefit of the human-animal bond, dogs are now being enlisted to help these veterans reclaim their emotional balance. In an experimental program, the federal government is providing preliminary support to connect some veterans with trained dogs to help them heal. Janie Lorber of The New York Times reported on Sunday some very tangible successes, with a number of servicemen in the program now able to sleep, no longer needing multiple forms of medication, and even getting out of their homes and reintegrating themselves into society. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Reps. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) and Ron Klein (D-Fla.) were among the Congressional leaders who championed this program.
The support dogs come from multiple sources, including a training program called Puppies Behind Bars. In this program, inmates at jails are allowed to train and teach dogs, and then the dogs are connected with the vets. So here you have dogs helping inmates and our nation’s veterans—two very different populations, but both with serious challenges and needs.
Other programs to benefit veterans also address the needs of homeless pets. Here in the D.C. area, the Washington Humane Society launched Dog Tags, where soldiers recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center provide training, enrichment, and companionship for dogs awaiting adoption at the shelter. Another fine program is our friend Tamar Geller’s Operation Heroes & Hounds.
In each of these instances, we see that animals soften the heart and help the healing. We’ve known for a long time that animals enrich our lives, and here they are being enlisted to help some of the people in greatest need.