According to the U.S. Department of Veteranís Affairs, a 2008 RAND Corporation, Center for Military Health Policy Research study found 13.8% of troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have PTSD. Thatís a percentage Beth Russell, RN, a former critical care nurse in the surgical/ICU trauma unit at the University of California, San Diego Medical Center, finds troubling.
In 2006, she launched Freedom Dogs, originally planning to train dogs to work with veterans who had suffered permanent disabilities. But she soon found there also was a great need for service dogs that could help veterans with PTSD.
"It was a challenge to get people to look at our model and understand it," said Russell, who retired from UCSD to work with Freedom Dogs. "We were starting a program using specially trained psychiatric service dogs to work with veterans who had PTSD, considered the 'invisible disabilityí back then."
"When veterans join our program, there is no expectation they will have a dog placed with them on a permanent basis," Russell said. "The goal is to assist them in their recovery and to help them re-integrate into society as a whole mentally, physically and socially."
Each veteran progresses through several phases of the training program beginning with an initial meeting with the dog and trainer, progressing to weekly sessions to help them learn how to work with a dog, and moving on to venturing out in public with a dog and trainer to appointments, sporting events and more.
In the third phase of the program, Russell and her volunteers integrate the medical care plan developed by each veteranís care provider. The last phase stresses independence, allowing the dog to accompany the veteran to school or events and return to the trainer at the end of the day.
Since being paired with Gunner, Ramirez said, she feels more comfortable venturing out into public and attending school with the service dog by her side.
"I used to depend on others to go with me to doctorís appointments, and I suffered from anxiety and nightmares," Ramirez said. "Gunner has allowed me to be independent and can sense if Iím going to have an anxiety attack before it happens and calms me."
With her service dogís help, Ramirez is attending classes to pursue a degree in interior design and has become more social, venturing out of her house, even taking a plane flight.
Linda Childers is a freelance writer. Send letters to editorWest@nurse.com or post a comment below.