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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Healing Heroes and Helping Hounds

The bond between people and animals is a strong one—and can even be a healing one. Pets are good for our emotional and physical health, and studies show that having a pet can lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Caring for a companion animal provides a sense of purpose and fulfillment and lessens feelings of loneliness and isolation in people of all ages.

Veteranwithservicedog
H.R. 3266 aims to pair vets with pets.

For wounded warriors and disabled veterans, caring for a pet can help them reenter society and avoid stress or depression. And if the soldier suffered serious injuries while serving our country, a service dog can provide much-needed assistance and critical care.

A new bill introduced by Representatives Ron Klein (D-Fla.) and Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) will help place dogs with men and women of the military. H.R. 3266, the Wounded Warrior K-9 Corps Act, would establish a program to award grants to nonprofit organizations that provide wounded warriors and disabled veterans with service animals such as physical therapy dogs and guide dogs. The grants will help organizations implement programs that pair assistance dogs with eligible veterans and soldiers who suffer from loss of vision, hearing, or a limb, or a traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and a number of other injuries. The “commitment of the organization to humane standards for animals” is one of the bill’s criteria for receiving a grant.

The newest U.S. senator, Al Franken (D-Minn.), also announced that the first bill he plans to introduce will seek to make the service dog program more affordable for our troops. He wrote in the Star Tribune about the many benefits of service dogs:

Yes, they provide companionship. But they can also detect changes in a person’s breathing, perspiration or scent to anticipate and ward off an impending panic attack with some well-timed nuzzling. They are trained to let their masters know when it’s time to take their medication and to wake them from terrifying nightmares.

Service dogs raise their masters’ sense of well-being. There is evidence to suggest that increasing their numbers would reduce the alarming suicide rate among veterans, decrease the number of hospitalizations, and lower the cost of medications and human care.

It’s clear that this human-animal relationship helps our veterans, but it can help animals, too. Retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Jay Kopelman, who brought a dog home from Iraq, has become a big booster of such efforts to pair vets with pets.

There is, in fact, innovative work being done around the country that is demonstrably healing broken lives, both canine and human: My friend and celebrity dog trainer Tamar Geller helped launch a program called Operation Heroes and Hounds at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base in Southern California. She is teaching wounded warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan how to train shelter dogs to make the dogs more adoptable. Both service members and shelter dogs learn a new set of skills that will make a positive impact on their future.

Let’s hope such programs expand across the country. A rising tide of compassion lifts all boats—it’s a way to support the men and women who served our country, and give a second chance to the animals who ended up in shelters through no fault of their own.

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