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Paws for Peace: Putting a Veteran's Best Friend Within Financial Reach

Jennifer Mitchell
Philip St. Amand with 13-week-old bullmastiff puppy, Brandy.

LEWISTON, Maine - It's estimated that of the 2.7 million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, at least 20 percent will face yet another battle, as they cope with the effects of post traumatic stress. For some, a connection to animals might bring relief.But with trained service animals costing tens of thousands of dollars, it's not an option for many cash-strapped veterans, as the VA doesn't pay for them. Now there's a special class where veterans can learn to train their own service dogs.

You'd think an obedience class full of dogs, including a pair of 13-week-old puppies would be a noisy affair.

Jennifer Mitchell: "Everybody's so quiet - I was expecting some dog noise or something. Everyone's so very well behaved.

Kathy Hecht, talking to a dog: "Good service dogs don't make noise."

That's trainer Kathy Hecht greeting a small brown, bullmastiff puppy, who's wiggling and snuffling into the microphone - but remaining remarkably calm. "We're supposed to be quiet," Hecht tells him. "Hello baby."

"I've been training service dogs for 30 years," Hecht says. And now, as the trainer for the project Paws for Peace, based in Lewiston, Hecht is teaching veterans to train their own service animals.

For her, the project is personal. She watched her father lose his eyesight - and his independence. But she says he regained some independence with the help of a seeing eye dog.  And Hecht has two sons serving in the military. She says the need for trained service animals is higher than it's ever been.

"Right now, we've got veterans who are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, we've got veterans with issues that have gone unaddressed since the Vietnam era and before, that are basically taking their lives at the rate of 22 veterans a day," Hecht says. "That is absolutely unacceptable."

A service dog can literally save lives, she says, by making a vet feel less isolated at home. Service dogs are trained to sense negative symptoms of stress, and provide distraction and comfort at crucial moments. The dog doesn't ask questions or try to force a person to talk, and the veteran has someone to nurture.  

But with a price tag of between $20,000 and $60,000, acquiring a certified dog to provide the therapy is too expensive for many.

Philip St. Amand and his puppy, Brandy, are one of 12 veteran-dog teams taking part in the class. They're just learning the basics now - sit, stay, heel. St. Amand spent 24 years in the Army Reserves. "Tore my left knee up," he says. "Then I have other issues, and PTSD. Two deployments overseas."

Jennifer Mitchell: "And where were you?"

Philip St. Amand: "Iraq. Both times."

Jennifer Mitchell: "What are you hoping to get out of this?"

Philip St. Amand: "To be able to go and do stuff that I don't do right now because I typically stay in the house and - not like being around people."

St. Amand's story is typical for veterans trying to adjust to life after combat, says Joy Johnson, a social worker from Embrace a Vet, the parent organization of Paws for Peace.  These vets are in a perpetual state of hyper-vigilance she says. They avoid parades, parties, fireworks. And they rarely feel safe in public.

That's where the dog comes in again. "They have your back," Johnson says. "The dog learns to kind of be your buffer between you and a person on the other side of you. The service dog just kind of creates a perimeter around you."

That's what Keith Curley is hoping for. "I am always surrounded by people, and social anxiety is one of my biggest problems," Curley says. "So it's a comforting presence."

Curley says four years in the Marine Reserves and four years on active duty in the Navy, with deployments to Iraq, have left him struggling to cope with people, even at his job.  

Johnson says the goal is to match the right dogs sourced from breeders and animal shelters to the right veterans, at low - or no - cost, and to bring an end to long waiting lists.

The pilot class, conducted over the winter, will graduate eight veterans and their dogs in mid-March for a fraction of what it would have cost to purchase a ready-trained dog - about $1,500 to $2,000, with the cost for some subsidized. The new class has attracted 12 applicants.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, service animals are not currently provided by the VA for mental health conditions. The department says studies are underway to determine if service dogs should be provided to help treat cases of PTSD, but it's a process they expect will take years to complete.