Brad Schwarz, with his service dog Panzer, attends a Chicago Cubs' game with a group of veterans from the Wounded Warrior Project at Wrigley Field on June 14, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois.
( Scott Olson/Getty Images
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway. Now, most dogs have just one job, be our best friends [dog barks] in all their barking, tail-wagging glory, [dog barks] but some dogs have more formal jobs. In the US, about 500,000 dogs are registered as service dogs, assisting people with disabilities and enabling them to live more independently. A growing body of research supports the idea that service dogs can even ease the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder for military veterans.
In August 2021, President Biden signed the PAWS Act, Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members. It'd require the Department of Veterans Affairs to open a service dog referral program to veterans with PTSD. I spoke with Rick Yount, the executive director and founder of Warrior Canine Connection, a nonprofit that teaches veterans how to train service dogs for other veterans.
Rick Yount: Dogs that they're training are trained to help with mobility, pulling wheelchairs, getting up and down stairs, opening doors, closing doors, turning on lights. We also help to train the dogs to identify stress cues in veterans with post-traumatic stress, so a veteran's leg is bouncing. It's very common as a sign of anxiety being manifested. The dog will respond to that bouncing leg and come over and lay their chin on the veteran's leg, and call attention to, "Hey, reset, pet me." Maybe their head is in their hands because they're having a moment. The dog will come over again and refocus and recenter them. Nightmare interruption is another task that we train the dogs to wake a veteran up who's having a nightmare, and also help them get back to sleep by providing that sense of calm and connection.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is there science behind this connection between dogs and, particularly PTSD, but also maybe, as you are pointing out there, mental health more broadly?
Rick Yount: The science that has emerged is really explaining a lot of the things that I've witnessed over the last many years. Connection with the dog is actually naturally releasing the anti-stress chemistry, in this case, in the veterans, and so when that dog is interceding through that bouncing knee and lays their head on a knee, and then we instruct the veteran to reinforce that behavior to pet the dog, that's releasing an anti-stress hormone. It was described by one of our trainers. He's a former Navy Corpsman. He said, "It's like a self-licking ice cream cone." The dog picks up the stress cue and intervenes, lays their head, the veteran pets the dog to reinforce the behavior, so the dog will continue to do that, and it's releasing this oxytocin in the veteran and the dog, which helps keep that bond strong.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, when it comes to training, you all have veterans who are training dogs for other veterans. What difference does it make to have veterans doing the training?
Rick Yount: Who better to help train service dogs for veterans than fellow veterans, who would take it more to heart and doing it correctly? That warrior ethos, this sense of duty and devotion to taking care of your own pack members, in this case, your fellow veterans. These are folks that will crawl through broken glass and fire to take care of their own. That's why we call this model the Mission-Based Trauma Recovery model. The training of a dog for a fellow vet, you come to realize that the most important aspect of anyone's mental health is having a sense of purpose or a reason to be.
One of the most important parts of it is that is a mission. You're not doing this for yourself. You're doing this to take care of your battle buddy. Even though you're in a hospital and you're having a hard time functioning, we need your help. We don't approach them and say, "Hey, would you like to work with his dog because it'll help you with your recovery?" No. "Would you like to help train this dog because there's a waitlist of years for veterans who need these dogs trained?" We're treating them as-- they're contributors, they're service providers. They're not consumers, and I think that it is much more palatable, much more acceptable to veterans, and there's little to no stigma.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is there a story of a particular dog and trainer that really sticks out for you?
Rick Yount: When I started this program, the original pilot started back in 2008 at the inpatient VA treatment program. One of the veteran participants that I was working with was asked by a Congressional staff member what they were getting out of working with a dog. He shared that the patience that he had been learning through practice and training the dog, and the praise voice that I was coaching him to use to reinforce the behaviors, he started taking that home on his weekend visits. He shared with us that he attributed what he had learned through training the service dog, as saving his marriage. He said he had been very harsh on his three-year-old son. He's a drill instructor in the Marine Corps. He was taking that home, and it wasn't doing well, but he start bringing home the training of the patients and the praise. He said, "I think this is saving my marriage. It's taught me how to reconnect with my son on a three-year-old level."
Melissa Harris-Perry: I know the VA is actually launching a five-year pilot program for veterans with PTSD to help train these service dogs. What are some of your hopes about this pilot program? Where do you see the future of this field?
Rick Yount: My hope for this is that there's such an undeniable outcome and the benefits in so many ways, important ways, in addressing various symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and the impact of preserving families, that this will become a standard of care that's available to veterans all around the country. Currently, the PAWS Act is considered an unfunded mandate, meaning we, as a nonprofit, Warrior Canine Connection, we have to raise the funding to deliver the service at the VA hospitals. That is mandated by the PAWS Act. I hope that we can get to the point where the funding is there. We'd like to see this, again, accepted as a standard of care and supported, not only by the VA, but also, hopefully, insurance, and like any other care that has proven itself to be effective, is accepted and supported nationally.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Rick Yount is executive director and founder of Warrior Canine Connection, a nonprofit teaching veterans how to train service dogs for other veterans. Rick, thank you so much for being here.
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