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home : features : people & places January 24, 2015


12/24/2013 12:34:00 PM
'Soldier's Best Friend' not a gun, but a dog to ease stress disorders, restore confidence
Soldier’s Best Friend program participant Shawn Johnson and his companion dog Molly give each other a quick hug during an outing at Mountain Valley Park. The program matches qualified veterans with trainable dogs in dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Trib Photos/Briana Lonas
Soldier’s Best Friend program participant Shawn Johnson and his companion dog Molly give each other a quick hug during an outing at Mountain Valley Park. The program matches qualified veterans with trainable dogs in dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Trib Photos/Briana Lonas
James Stemm and his companion dog Rocco complete a simple walking exercise as part of their training program with the Soldier’s Best Friend program designed to match trainable dogs with qualified veterans. The program assists veterans in living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Trib Photos/Briana Lonas
James Stemm and his companion dog Rocco complete a simple walking exercise as part of their training program with the Soldier’s Best Friend program designed to match trainable dogs with qualified veterans. The program assists veterans in living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Trib Photos/Briana Lonas

Several men and their dogs played at the park last weekend enjoying the beautiful weather. What made the day remarkable was the fact that these men typically don't feel comfortable out in public. If it weren't for their canine buddies, these men may not have left the house at all.

The men are veterans who suffer from either Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Their specially trained dogs have helped the soldiers come back to life in many ways because now they leave the house, have better relationships with their families and fare much better out in public.

The veterans and the dogs were matched by the Soldier's Best Friend program designed to help those diagnosed with PTSD or TBI, whether from the Veteran's Administration (VA) or other referral agencies. Veterans also may use their own dogs for therapy training, if the dogs meet certain qualifications as described on the program's Web site.

James Stemm filled out an application through the VA and the program matched him with Rocco, a loveable mixed breed the program adopted through the Yavapai Humane Society. The canine and his owner soon began training sessions designed to help Stemm with his PTSD treatment plan.

"It's been amazing," Stemm said. "Rocco complements my psychiatric therapy because one cannot work without the other. I strongly encourage vets to try this program."

Stemm mentioned that Rocco also suffered trauma from being mistreated at the hands of his previous owners. Within five hours of receiving Rocco, the veteran said they bonded and are now healing nicely.

Stemm explained that Rocco has helped him not to let his issues control his life.

"He's been a blessing to me, he saved my life and my marriage," Stemm said.

Certified dog trainer Starr Ladehoff works with the Soldier's Best Friend program and explained that in some cases the dogs are trained to wake their human companions during nightmare episodes, to create a safe space between the veteran and other people in public places, and in some instances jump up and place their paws on the shoulders if they sense their owner is showing signs of distress. Training classes take between six and nine months at no cost to the veterans, she said. Many of the dogs are rescues from local shelters.

The Prescott Arizona Kennel Club recently donated $1,000 to the program towards training and adoption expenses.

"We raised the money by way of our dog shows and we held a pink dog auction that raised $300 for the program," Jean Focke, who serves on the club's board of directors, said.

Prescott Animal Hospital has been involved with the program for two years and takes care of the dogs' wellness and diagnostic needs.

The Soldier's Best Friend is a non-profit corporation and their Web site is www.SoldiersBestFriend.org. Qualified veterans may apply for a service dog or therapeutic companion dog from the site.


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