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Veterans with pets find comfort, reduced anxiety

Times-Tribune - 5/30/2024

When service or emotional support animals are paired with veterans who may be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries or other physical or mental health challenges, it’s a paws-itive experience for all.

Ryan Haight, an administrator who works with Paws4Patriots, a program offered by American Humane, a nonprofit based out of Washington, D.C., said their group connects dogs to veterans across the country even as far away as California, and including in and around Northeast Pennsylvania.

The process begins online with an application, and includes verification from a medical professional of veterans’ qualifying health diagnoses, which is required, a video interview with the veteran where they can learn about the services provided, and a confirmation that their homes are set up to have a dog. Then a partner service can provide a dog for a 10-day training with the veteran.

“The dog training makes sure it’s a good match for the veteran and the service dog, and teaches the dog to look for specific gestures or triggers to help guide the veterans out of situations.” Haight said.

In addition to veterans, Paws4Patriots is expanding to offer services to other qualifying groups.

“Any kind of first responder with post-traumatic stress disorder or a post-traumatic brain injury is now eligible as well,” said Paige Strott, the director of media relations with American Humane.

The Diocese of Scranton had a program called Curative Companions, which offered some animal care funds to pet owners living at St. Francis Commons with qualifying medical conditions, but the program has since lost funding and is no longer operating. Residents are still allowed to live on site with their furry friends. Currently, a clowder of cats and one puppy reside there.

One St. Francis Commons resident, Zakk Akers, 22, who served for three years in the Navy said his jet black cat, Vlad, is an undeniable comfort to him.

“He responds to his name, he follows me around, he does tricks, and he is extremely playful,” Akers said. “He even sleeps in my bed at night.”

Another resident, Ron Hilliard, a 51-year-old who served in the Navy from 1992 to 1994 and struggles with sleep and mental health issues, says his mixed breed stray, Speedy, who he’s had for 10 years since he was a kitten, always wants to be around him.

“We spend a lot of time together, and he’s gotten me through a lot of hard times,” Hilliard said. “He gives me a reason to behave, because I’ve got more to look out for than just me.”

Randy Sargent, who served 14 years in the Army, including a tour in the Afghanistan War, calls his fixed male calico who he lives with at the St. Francis Commons, Maximus, or Max for short.

“He calms me down,” Sargent said. “He’s my only family and friend.”

Lorenzo Hudson, a 28-year old who served four years in the Navy owns the sole puppy, an 11-month-old Jack Russel Terrier named Josie.

“Josie is very comforting to have around,” Hudson said.

The veterans all said they feel very close to and comforted by their pets, even treating them as “children.”

“I ordered her a blanket with her name on it that she likes to cuddle up in. She likes her toys, she likes to be pet," Hudson said. "She’s a peace-loving animal.”

“I am a disabled vet myself, and I can’t tell you how much these animals mean to these former veterans,” said Ken Young, the president and co-founder of Pawsitively For The Animals, a Scranton-based nonprofit organization that helps keep animals out of shelters by assisting pet owners with food, medical equipment and care such as ramps for older pets or spay and neutering services.

“They have the ability to sense when a veteran is hyperventilating, starting to have a problem, or are being stressed out in a situation,” Young said. “They provide a calming presence and help relax the veterans.”

Young said service animals undergo special training in order become certified by professionals such as dog trainer Alan Finn of Designing Dogs in Old Forge.

“He is the dog whisperer,” Young said.

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