This Able Veteran ‘Closing the Gap’ with its Standards-Setting PTSD Service Dog Trauma Recovery Program

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Twenty-two veterans take their lives every day with over 600,000 living with psychological trauma from their service to our country. This Able Veteran is doing our part to help them.

Howard meets his service dog, Maverick, for the first time

There is hope. There is.

On Memorial Day, we paused to remember those who have sacrificed so much for our country. But, remembering isn't enough. There is more we can do to truly thank our military personnel.

There is one organization that understands the problems and gaps veterans face, particularly those who sustain psychological injuries during service.

This Able Veteran offers a unique trauma recovery program.

This Able Veteran (TAV), a nonprofit organization founded in 2011, bridges the gap, helping veterans who aren’t receiving the recovery care they need, according to Behesha Doan, TAV president.

Located in southern Illinois, TAV gives new hope and promise to injured veterans and their families. TAV’s veteran-centric model of care assists the veteran in navigating his/her recovery journey by incorporating specially trained PTSD Service Dogs while learning life management and resilience skills that complement the veteran’s ongoing therapy.

Better understanding of PTSD

Today’s returning veterans have advantages over those returning home from previous wars resulting from advancements in research and clinical practice leading to improved treatments for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and its accompanying physiological states. PTSD, previously referred to as “shell shock” or “battle fatigue”, is now understood to include a complex mixture of physiological, psychological, behavioral and often spiritual dimensions. PTSD covers a variety of symptoms that occur after exposure to extreme trauma that may include hypervigilance, insomnia, flashbacks and inappropriate emotional responses to everyday situations.

PTSD is treatable. The fact that it is treatable, however, makes the reality of the large number of veterans who are not being effectively treated harder to bear. Often the barrier to treatment is a lack of resources, while other times a veteran’s unwillingness to request treatment is an issue. TAV has been quite successful in addressing these issues.

Momentum toward recovery

Doan is frequently asked what makes the work of TAV’s professional dog trainers, specially trained dogs, and TAV’s clinical psychologists so effective in helping veterans. Doan believes the program is unique in the industry and does not lend itself to a quick explanation. But one of the things she mentions is the importance of integrating common elements of emotional regulation in training and leading the dogs with the learning of personal emotional regulation required for an individual's recovery. Veterans learn how to work with and lead their service dogs at the same time they are learning similar emotional regulation and control skills required for their personal healing.

Feeling and expressing positive emotions are challenging for many suffering from PTSD. Recognizing and expressing a sense of belonging, comfort, joy and love that are required for healthy integration with their families and civilian society often can be a long-term challenge. Emotional withdrawal can impair normal adjustment and family integration. "Experiencing the total dedication, trust and love from a highly trained support dog can be a powerful force that can lead to immediate emotional bonding that may instantly change the direction of emotional withdrawal and thereby enhance the momentum of recovery,” Doan said.

Steve, a Vietnam veteran and TAV service dog recipient who suffered a lifetime with the ravages of untreated PTSD, said, “This program is a game changer, not only for me, but for the younger vets; it’s a must!” Steve is now working hard to recover with the help of his service dog, Gypsy, and the new skills he gained at TAV.

Watch Steve and other veterans speak about their experience at TAV:

In Doan’s experience, the dog can become a catalyst that frees the veteran from his or her emotional paralysis. By training dogs to recognize, alert on and interrupt the early onset of anxiety responses, panic attacks and nightmares, TAV’s service dogs’ skills help their veteran begin to break the cycle. As the veteran begins to work with their dog – learning to communicate with the dog, praising the dog, depending on the dog to alert them when they begin to spiral – they begin to learn to connect again. As the connection with the dog strengthens, this becomes more natural, and the veteran’s confidence and trust builds, creating a momentum that moves them forward to face challenges that they previously avoided. “It’s all about creating that momentum,” Doan explains.

Leveraging the veteran’s desire to stay connected to the dog as a motivator for recovery, TAV, the veteran, the veteran’s family and therapist work as a team to build on that momentum to achieve the goal of complete recovery.

TAV is experiencing momentum of its own as the response to TAV’s work has been overwhelming. In just two years, TAV, which is funded entirely through private donations and fundraising activities, is setting the standard for PTSD service dog programs across the nation.

The accomplishments of TAV and its staff include:
●    Co-authored PTSD Service Dog Best Practices Paper for Assistance Dogs International
●    Invited speaker, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, TAV’s PTSD Service Dogs
●    Trained the first Assisted Therapy Dog in the United States to be assigned as a permanent staff member at a VA Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program, Marion, IL.
●    Offered a PTSD Service Dog Academy to train professional dog trainers in the TAV method.
●    Integrated emotional regulation, life management skills and resilience training within the three-week curriculum.

Bridging the gap between the need and the supply of recovery services

TAV’s challenge now is keeping up with the demand its own success is creating. There are more than 300 veterans currently on the waiting list for the PTSD Service Dog Program. The need simply outweighs TAV’s financial ability to provide for the veterans who apply. While the nonprofit organization is seeking additional funding to expand its program, Doan also feels it is important to train more trainers through its PTSD Service Dog Academy. “The more trainers that we can develop, the more truly qualified dogs we can train for veterans in need,” she said. The next PTSD Service Dog Trainers courses will be held in July and September.

There is one more vital gap TAV is working to fill. Currently, the VA does not cover the cost for service dogs for PTSD. According to this 2012 NBC News story, “[t]he VA said that despite many individual veterans’ testimonials that mental health service dogs provide relief from the symptoms of combat-related disabilities such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it lacked research substantiating the efficacy of mental health service dogs.”

Again, TAV is bridging the gap. One of the licensed clinical psychologists on TAV’s team, Richard H. Hunter, Ph.D., ABPP, FAACP of Clinical Outcomes Group, has begun working on a research project that will be conducted through the Anxiety, Behavior, and Cognition Research Lab at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Based on his own experience working with the veterans in the program, Hunter is quite impressed. “The amount of progress that I’ve seen with very seriously disabled veterans from this program exceeds any that I’ve ever seen in my 50 years of practice,” Hunter said.

Sarah Kertz, an assistant professor of psychology at SIU Carbondale and a licensed clinical psychologist, will lead the research project studying the long-term effects of TAV’s trauma recovery program and service dogs.

“The way that the dog and treatment piece comes together – that’s where the magic happens. That’s the beauty of this program; when you put those things together, it’s synergistic. Together they do much more than either one could do alone,” Kertz said.

“This is a program about committing to our veterans – there is life after trauma. And we’re here to help them accomplish that,” Doan concluded.

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