This Veterans Day, we recognize one organization that does incredible work by bringing veterans and rescue pets together. Pets for Vets has grown to include over 30 chapters across the US and continues to grow. Here is our Q&A with the Founder of Pets for Vets, Clarissa Black.
What led you to found Pets for Vets?
I started Pets for Vets in 2009 after a visit to a local VA. Many of the Veterans’ faces would light up as they interacted with my dog. A few Veterans asked if they could take my dog home. It was in that moment that I thought, “Why is therapy one hour, once a week, inside the walls of the VA?” I thought I could use my training skills and knowledge of dogs to select the right dog from a shelter or rescue and provide a foundation of training and support in order to mitigate the stress of adopting a new dog. I wanted this to be my way to say thank you to those who had given so much for our country. Once news spread of this program, people began asking how they could replicate the program, and I knew I had to create a national program.
How does caring for a dog allow people to recover in a way that otherwise may not have been possible?
Medical studies have shown that companion animals significantly improve mental and physical health, including reducing stress, depression and anxiety, symptoms experienced by many serving in the military.
The benefits of having a companion animal can mitigate each of the four dimensions of PTSD through companionship, socialization, motivation, de-arousal, emotional support, and social support to create a comprehensive treatment plan to increase the quality of life for veterans.
Some specific benefits conferred to our veterans:
- Dogs can act as a social catalyst allowing Veterans to interact with people and not feel such anxiety in public.
- Dogs encourage and motivate people to increase physical exercise through playing and walking.
- Dogs can reduce hypervigilance – dogs are vigilant and very observant of their environment. Veterans take comfort in knowing that their dog will see something and evaluate it and then they themselves can relax a bit and not have to be as hypervigilant.
- Physical contact such as petting a dog is relaxing, slows down heart rate and lowers blood pressure.
- Dogs provide a sense of social support, reassurance and a sense of belonging. There is a positive correlation between social support and increased human health and survival.
- Dog owners need fewer doctor’s appointments and are less reliant on medication.
- One Veteran reported that on the very first night he had his first therapy session, his dog placed his paw on his knee and gazed into his eyes. This gesture allowed the Veteran to open up and share everything with his dog that he had been holding onto from six deployments. Things he had not shared with anyone else.
- Dogs can be trained to perform certain tasks to help their Veterans such as waking them up from nightmares, recognizing anxiety behaviors and disrupting them, creating a bubble of space, and more.
How many pets have been placed with vets since the program started?
Over 200 Veteran-pet matches have been made since the program started.
What is one of your favorite Pet and Vet success stories?
One Veteran shared that he had lost his heart and soul in Iraq and when he returned home he just didn’t care about anyone or anything. He was anticipating gaining some benefits from his dog, such as feeling less hypervigilant and maybe not being as dependent on his medications but what he says he received was so much more. He said that his dog opened the door to his heart and the window to his soul, by loving his dog he was able to love again and is now engaged to be married. This is how he characterized his experience with Pets for Vets:
“Charlie thinks what I am thinking, sees what I am seeing, and feels what I am feeling and I, him. We are one heartbeat, one breath, we share our senses. He is not my dog, I am not his owner, he is an extension of me. Our bond is deep, when I move he moves. It’s almost like a telepathic communication, I know what he needs, he senses what I need. Our spirits and souls are bonded. We just know we are supposed to be by each other’s side. That is where we belong. That is our purpose. Our bond is that we live life together, we are one package. People know us as “Mike and Charlie”, we are one person.” *
“Clarissa is my angel, she found the most perfect dog for me. I would not have been able to pick out a dog that was better suited to me. My dog and Pets for Vets saved my life.”
*Names changed for privacy reasons.
What are Pets for Vets plans for 2017 and beyond?
We will continue to establish chapters, with a goal of at least one chapter in all 50 states in order to serve more Veterans and shelter animals. We are exploring possible research grants to further validate the positive impact of the human-animal bond on our Veterans who may be suffering with PTSD and/or TBI.
Thank you to Clarissa for sharing her story and information on Pets for Vets’ great work! We look forward to hearing about more chapters, veteran-pet matches, and continued success in the future.