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A war, a dog, and now a second chance

Daniela Caride
A war, a dog, and now a second chance
Army Sgt. Russell Hall hugs his assistance dog, Harley, at the shopping mall. He would never visit the place before adopting his dog because of PTSD. The over stimulus would trigger an anxiety attack. Because of Harley, he now feels more confident and stable. (Photo: Daniela Caride)

Dogs help wounded veterans deal with disability and emotional trauma, but availability is scarce

The war in Afghanistan turned the athletic, outgoing Christopher Maddeford into a broken veteran. The Army sergeant came back to Chelsea in 2003 sore and depressed, having trouble walking, sleeping and remembering things. Unable to keep a job or any relationship, he soon started abusing pain medication.

Everything changed two years ago, when assistance dog A.J. put Maddeford’s life back on track. The affectionate 80-pound black Labrador retriever trained to perform dozens of tasks has helped the veteran keep his job, start dating and enter college. Maddeford has even controlled his addiction and cut back half of his medications.

“I owe it all to A.J.,” says the veteran. “I wouldn’t be here working today, helping other veterans, if I didn’t have him.”

A small but growing number of assistance dogs are trained in the U.S. to serve people like Maddeford — one of a swarm of soldiers that come back from Iraq and Afghanistan sustaining lifelong injuries. Every year organizations prepare dozens of skillful canines ready to pull drawers, push doors, fetch items, and even bark for help at their owner’s command, adding to the 700 such dogs working for veterans.

But not even the increasing numbers can match the ever-growing stream of veterans in need. More than 43,000 soldiers have come back wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan — a number that does not include soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition canine assistants now also address.

“We have more veterans on our waiting list than we have dogs in the program,” says Lori Stevens, founder and executive director of Patriot Paws, a Texas-based nonprofit that trains 12 to 20 assistance dogs for veterans every year. The organization is struggling to fill a waiting list of 42 veterans.

John Moon, chief communication officer at NEADS / Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, says his organization has the same problem.

“Even if all of the assistance dog programs got together to supply dogs [only for veterans], we couldn’t meet the demand. In the military, the demand is so high that we are talking of thousands,” he says. The Princeton nonprofit founded in 1976, which trained A.J. for Maddeford, prepares nearly 50 dogs yearly.

The challenges to deliver more assistance dogs to veterans start with the amount of care each animal requires to be ready for the job, which adds up to tens of thousands of dollars.

For months, dozens of people are involved in socializing, training, feeding and providing veterinary care for each handpicked bred dog. The animal is taught more than 50 tasks that buffer mobility impairments, and learns to execute them in any environment, from busy shopping malls to tiny elevators.

When Maddeford falls, for instance, he leans on A.J.’s massive back and gets up. When he drops something, A.J. picks it up. When his anxiety escalates, A.J. licks Maddeford’s face until the tension is gone.

Peter Gorbing, president of Assistance Dogs International, an institute that accredits assistance dog organizations worldwide and sets training quality standards, stresses that those dogs need enough socialization to face any situation in public “calmly and unobtrusively.” This process, he says, takes more than a year, and many dogs fail because they show fear, aggression or poor attention span. At Moon’s organization, a third of the dogs flunk the training.

But some people — especially the ones who need a dog immediately — question the need of so much preparation.

After trying all kinds of treatments with little improvement, Army Sgt. Paul Jeffers, a medic at Fort Bliss, Texas, decided to try an assistance dog. But his options were slim — organizations that could give him a dog charged four-figure fees, and the ones that didn’t charge had waiting lists.

He rescued a 3-year-old caramel Boxer from the pound, named her Coco and asked self-taught dog trainer Debbie Kandoll to help him train the dog. Coco was soon helping Jeffers keep his balance and control his mood, which was  affected, like Maddeford’s, by brain injury and post-traumatic stress.

In two months, the improvements in Jeffers’ health “were so tremendous,” says Kandoll, that they began preparing dogs for other people — a project they named Paws of Honor.

Soon they were receiving calls from Fort Bliss soldiers and from doctors referring military patients. Kandoll and Jeffers evaluate shelter dogs, retired military dogs and even pet dogs for a possible match. When they find an animal with the right size, aptitude and personality, the soldier adopts it and brings it to regular classes to learn how to train it.

Jeffers believes that letting the soldiers train their dogs strengthens the bond and cuts the generally painful step of getting the animal used to the disabled after another handler has trained it for months. Maddefod remembers that A.J. was not interested in him at first.

“That kind of cuts out the middleman,” says the 31-year-old soldier wounded in Iraq, who plans to work as a dog trainer once he is out of the Army. “Also, the dogs are still in training, but the soldiers are already receiving help just by having the dogs with them.”

Army Sgt. Russell Hall, a 42-year-old medic stationed at Fort Bliss, couldn’t be happier with Harley. The 3-year-old black Labrador retriever pit bull mix was rescued from the pound in January, when Paws of Honor team saw his potential.

“The dog made a huge difference,” says the soldier, soon to be medically discharged from the Army. “It gives you something to focus on instead of yourself,” adds Hall, sitting on a bench at a mall in El Paso, surrounded by curious people and dog teams in training.

Such an environment would have sent Hall into a full-blown anxiety attack before having Harley. He came back from Iraq in 2007 with back, shoulder, wrist, arm and brain injuries, as well as partial hearing loss and post-traumatic stress. Like Maddeford, he incurred most of his injuries when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb.

Two months into living with Harley, Hall was a different man, says his wife, Alma Hall, who threatened to divorce him if he didn’t seek treatment.

“Just since he had the dog, he’s starting to do things with me because he knows with the dog he’s going to be OK. It’s been really nice,” says a hopeful Alma.

Organizations might disagree on how much training assistance dogs need. But one thing is sure — the more training a dog gets, the higher the costs. A purebred dog like A.J., with 16 months of professional training and care, costs $20,000.

At Patriot Paws, a dog may cost up to $30,000. And if it weren’t for innovative programs that some nonprofits run, such as getting prisoners to train canines, the costs could top $60,000 per dog.

Since 2002, when Congress approved dogs for hearing- and mobility-impaired veterans, the VA ordered three studies comparing canines to other prosthetics. Years later, the research produced arguable but interesting results, says Diana Rintala, main investigator on a 2004 study done at Baylor College of Medicine, Texas.

The paper concluded that the costs of a dog were “very high,” that it can be hard on the veteran when the dog dies, and that dogs replaced only relatively inexpensive equipment such as reaching sticks and telephone blinking lights.

“The dog is not going to feed you. You’re not going to necessarily go to work within the first six months of getting a dog,” says the retired researcher, associate professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Baylor College at that time.

But the paper also pointed that dogs increased veterans’ independence and confidence. “Particularly heartening is the fact that hours of paid assistance decreased,” wrote the researcher.

Rintala thinks assistance dogs should be seen as complementary to other equipment. They don’t replace scooters and wheelchairs, she says, but they offset some costs for paid human assistance and may also reduce care-giving burden on family and friends.

The assistance dog industry has been studying dogs’ effectiveness in treating post-traumatic stress for almost three years, with positive preliminary results. The Princeton-based nonprofit has matched 12 veterans with dogs trained to address the disease, who have been “very successful” on the job, says Moon.

Army veteran Kevin Lambert, one of the participants, says his dog, Ronnie, helped him finally transition to civilian life after years of struggling with anger. “Coming home, the only emotion you do know how to show is anger. That’s the one you get to show constantly [in combat],” says Lambert, who joined the Army in 2004 and fought in Iraq for 16 straight months. “She taught me how to get back the other emotions.”

Even without structured training for emotional trauma, A.J. has also excelled in that area.

“Sometimes when I’m having a really bad night, he’ll wake me up,” says Maddeford. “I wake up and he’s laying on me, and he’s licking my face … and it snaps me out of it.”

“He’s my best friend,” adds the veteran about A.J. “He’s everything to me.”