A visit with Paws for Purple Hearts

Canine-Assisted Warrior Therapy

One of the tenets of military service is from the battlefield. “Leave no one behind”. As a veteran, I believe that extends to those who have come home with physical and emotional wounds. Statistics from the VA, state that up to 30 per cent of Vietnam Veterans have experienced Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD) in their lifetime, and from 11 to 20 percent of Gulf War and Iraq-Afghanistan veterans have PTSD in any given year. More than 400,000 veterans have had at least one Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). For the last few decades transformative support has grown through individuals and groups who help veterans adjust to life with these cognitive conditions, trauma from sexual violence and harassment, loss of limbs or other injuries suffered in the line of duty.

One such organization, Paws for Purple Hearts, (PPH) is a national volunteer-driven 501(c)3 therapy program. From its founding in 2011, tens of thousands of volunteer-hours and hundreds of service dogs have helped veterans and First Responders regain quality of life. Currently serving needs from four regional centers (Northwest, Southwest, South-Mid, and South-East), this organization was founded by Dr Bonita (Bonnie) Bergin, whose research into service dogs started Canine Companions for Independence in 1975.

At an adoption event for San Diego area canine rescue groups, I met PPH volunteers and learned a little what they do. Reaching out to Advancement Associate Randi Tuell, I was invited to tour their new Southwest regional facility located in San Diego and was given a tour by Director Kerry Blum. The facility has various spaces to replicate the environment of a home, separate areas for dogs in different phases of training, an outdoor exercise area and offices and work areas for the volunteers and staff. One space in the building was unusual in that there were guinea pigs. Kerry explained that the guinea pigs are a first step to acclimate the puppies to distractions, so that a service animal can be effective in the real world. As for the dogs, PPH uses select Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers. The puppies and adolescents are further screened for the aptitude and composure to enter training as therapy or service animals. Some will make fine pets but not service animals.

With a great need for service dogs (the waiting list nationwide is approximately two years at any given time), the prospective recipient of a service animal is also carefully screened. While some candidates are considered through PAWS partnership with the Veterans Administration, DOD, and other service groups, veterans and First Responders may also apply online. During the last part of training, a prospective recipient is introduced to the service animal to determine each’s fitness for the other. Once the veteran and the service dog are matched, PPH will follow up in the ensuing months to confirm that each are working well together.

The trainers, like most of those supporting the program, are volunteers. Most are veterans themselves, and dog-people, who, by working with these dogs, may find a renewed sense of purpose and commitment. As a program that runs on donations, PPH relies on volunteers to maintain the facility, clean the kennels, walk the dogs, and provide a host of support depending on interest and ability. Earlier that day, Kerry explained that a Boy Scout troop was being considered for assistance assembling enclosures or items for the dogs.

Individual donations, benefactors, and corporate sponsors are vital partners in pairing dogs with the veteran; each fully trained service dog is the result of thirty to forty thousand dollars of breeding, training, upkeep and veterinary support costs. Should you be interested in donating to such a worthy organization, learning more about volunteering in any capacity, or following this organization via social media, each regional website has links and a “puppycam” you may view.

Disclaimer: This article was unsolicited by Paws for Purple Hearts. Images remain the property of PPH and are used by permission. All information quoted here is publicly available on their website and that of the Veterans Administration, and the author received no benefit nor compensation from publication. -Ed

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