LEARN­ING TO HEAL VETS

Brooksvill­e non­profit train­ing pet own­ers and shel­ter dogs to work to­gether to over­come wounds of war

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Kate San­tich

At 13 pounds, Sandy may not look like your stereo­typ­i­cal ser­vice dog. The Shih Tzu-yorkie mix, found aban­doned in an al­ley, has a face that seems more dol­l­like than du­ti­ful. But for owner Teri Plei­nis — a 23-year Army vet­eran di­ag­nosed with PTSD af­ter serv­ing in Iraq — Sandy has been life-chang­ing.

“I’ve al­ready been able to de­crease my meds be­cause Sandy is around to help me — and I’ve only had her two months,” said Plei­nis, who lives in Tampa. “She’s like, ‘I’m here for you, Mom.’ She’ll sense when I start get­ting anx­ious, and she’ll just crawl into my lap.”

Plei­nis and Sandy are in train­ing at the non­profit K9 Part­ners for Pa­tri­ots, an 11,000-square-foot fa­cil­ity in Brooksvill­e, 75 miles west of Or­lando, that has won four grants from the U.S. De­part­ment of De­fense since open­ing in 2014. To date, it has en­rolled more than 360 vet­er­ans with post­trau­matic stress dis­or­der, trau­matic brain in­jury or mil­i­tary sex­ual trauma, help­ing them heal from

the in­vis­i­ble wounds of war.

But un­like other pro­grams that train spe­cific dog breeds and then place them with vet­er­ans, K9 Part­ners for Pa­tri­ots se­lects dogs from pet shel­ters and res­cue groups based on tem­per­a­ment — or uses the vet­eran’s own dog — and then trains both the vet­eran han­dlers and the dogs to­gether. It’s a 19-week course that has pro­duced more than 200 pairs of grad­u­ates from 31 Florida coun­ties, in­clud­ing those in Lake, Orange, Osce­ola and Semi­nole.

“We have res­cued over 140 dogs so far, many slated for eu­thana­sia,” said Mary Peter, a cer­ti­fied mas­ter dog trainer who founded the or­ga­ni­za­tion. “But we want to use the vet­eran’s dog if it’s so­cial enough and well-bal­anced men­tally to come into the pro­gram. If it al­ready has a bond with that vet­eran, we don’t need to rein­vent the wheel.”

The dogs are first tested for their abil­ity to sense and re­act to the stress hor­mones re­leased when a vet­eran is anx­ious or pan­icky. They also have to be rel­a­tively young — ide­ally, 9 months to 3 years — and be calm, con­fi­dent and friendly with adults, chil­dren and other dogs.

They can be mas­sive Ber­nese moun­tain dogs or tiny Lhasa ap­sos, stately Ger­man shep­herds or play­ful Dachshunds. Or any­thing in be­tween.

“When we test the dogs, we walk the dog around, and we watch,” Peter said. “If it jumps in ev­ery­body’s lap, kisses ev­ery­body, loves ev­ery­body, that dog’s a ‘no.’ It’ll be a great pet for some­one, but we need a dog that senses adren­a­line, and then pulls to­ward it. And most of the time when this hap­pens, the dog will then lay or sit in the lap of that vet­eran, and you can’t pull him away. It is beau­ti­ful to watch.”

That’s how it was for John Tay­lor, 39, a med­i­cally re­tired Army war­rant of­fi­cer who has bat­tled the ef­fects of PTSD, trau­matic brain in­jury, ver­tigo and tin­ni­tus for a decade. Pinned on a rooftop dur­ing the siege of Sadr City, Iraq, for eight hours, he saw his best friend die.

“I lock my­self up. I don’t go any­where re­ally, and if I do, it’s very short, and I don’t go by my­self,” he said one day in De­cem­ber, as he was just start­ing the pro­gram. “I don’t do well when there’s a lot of peo­ple.”

As he talks, a res­cued Rot­tweiler named Levy, found in the woods, nudges Tay­lor with his nose, then stares long­ingly into his eyes, try­ing to coax his at­ten­tion.

“That dog is work­ing for him right now,” Peter said.

Tay­lor gazes back and stroke’s the dog’s head.

“I hope he helps me, you know, get back out there,” he said.

The pro­gram is free to vet­er­ans, who can come back in­def­i­nitely af­ter they grad­u­ate for the ca­ma­raderie and ad­vice. They also get free pet sup­plies, help with dog food and med­i­ca­tion if they need it, and peer-sup­port coun­sel­ing groups.

“It’s amaz­ing what hap­pens here,” said Denny Brown, a li­censed clin­i­cal so­cial worker with the pro­gram. “Ob­vi­ously, it’s not a cure. But we have had dogs lit­er­ally save a life” — one that oth­er­wise would have been lost to sui­cide.

The best thing about a ser­vice dog, Brown said, is its con­stant pres­ence.

“So if the vet­eran is hav­ing an is­sue at night — whether it’s night­mares or anx­i­ety — the dog is right there,” he said.

Re­searchers from the Univer­sity of Cen­tral Florida, the Univer­sity of South Florida and pri­vate Saint Leo Univer­sity are study­ing the work at K9 Part­ners for Pa­tri­ots to doc­u­ment the im­pact. And so far, be­fore and af­ter as­sess­ments show it’s work­ing, said James Whit­worth, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at UCF’s School of So­cial Work, who has coun­seled mil­i­tary mem­bers and their fam­i­lies.

“Par­tic­i­pants in this pro­gram con­sis­tently re­port sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ments in their so­cial/ re­la­tional func­tion­ing and in their mood, along with re­duc­tions in the PTSD-re­lated dif­fi­cul­ties from pretest and post-test,” Whit­worth writes in a re­cently pub­lished study of 43 vet­er­ans who were eval­u­ated us­ing a stan­dard­ized trauma symp­tom sur­vey. “They are also able to de­scribe in their own words how train­ing and hav­ing a ser­vice dog is greatly help­ing them to get bet­ter. Most no­tably, par­tic­i­pants are far more will­ing to start and com­plete this pro­gram for their PTSD com­pared to stan­dard trauma treat­ments such as pro­longed ex­po­sure and cog­ni­tive-pro­cess­ing ther­apy.”

At a time when 22 U.S. vet­er­ans and ac­tive-duty ser­vice mem­bers take their own lives each day — and sui­cide rates have soared among younger vet­er­ans — ad­vo­cates say the need for K9 Part­ners for Pa­tri­ots and pro­grams like it is crit­i­cal.

“We’re trou­bled by the ap­par­ent fail­ure on the part of the De­part­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs to re­duce the vet­eran sui­cide rate,” said Gregg Laskoski, the char­ity’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor. “Frankly, the VA may be com­plicit in con­tribut­ing to a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of vet­eran sui­cides be­cause for decades it has opted for pills, pills and more pills — to the ex­clu­sion of al­ter­na­tive ther­a­pies,” such as ser­vice dogs.

Plei­nis doesn’t dis­agree. Though VA doc­tors helped her sur­vive, she wanted an al­ter­na­tive to the litany of med­i­ca­tions they pre­scribed.

“I’m on a lot of them, but not as many as I used to be, and I hope to be able to stop al­to­gether,” she said.

Still suf­fer­ing from anx­i­ety, night­mares and a se­vere star­tle re­sponse, the mother of two went through five at­tempted pair­ings with ca­nine part­ners be­fore Sandy came along in early Oc­to­ber.

“I was dis­ap­pointed at first, but I truly be­lieve God has a plan,” Plei­nis said. “When they brought in Sandy, she was like, ‘Hi, I’m here!’ And she jumped in my lap. Now, Sandy is my medicine. She’s help­ing me be hap­pier.”

SARAH ESPEDIDO/OR­LANDO SENTINEL

Teri Plei­nis, right, takes notes dur­ing a De­cem­ber class at K9 Part­ners for Pa­tri­ots.

SARAH ESPEDIDO/OR­LANDO SENTINEL

At K9 Part­ners for Pa­tri­ots, a dog learns to stay next to its owner when sit­ting in pub­lic.

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