A veteran’s best friend

Humans domesticated the dog thousands of years ago, and the bond is as strong as ever. That’s the rationale behind Dogs2Vets, which provides emotional support to veterans with post-traumatic stress, military sexual trauma, or physical impairments by establishing a reliable relationship between them and a canine companion.

“There are three areas of focus— service dog training, emotional support training, and community training,” says Melissa Spicer, executive director and co-founder of Clear Path for Veterans, the Chittenango, New York-based organization that runs the program. “All options require the veterans, paired with professional trainers, to train their own dogs.”

Dogs are selected from shelters and matched with veterans based on specific needs and interests; some veterans bring their own dog. The program is getting results, says Kate Hannon, program director.

“Veterans have become less isolated and more interactive, less hypervigilant and more physically active,” Hannon says. “We have witnessed their sense of humor reemerging, as their level of anxiety decreases and their trust begins to return. We have seen their confidence levels rise, as they witness the success of their training efforts with their new partner. They have to problem solve and make important decisions with respect to their canine partners, and this spills over into decision making in other aspects of their lives.”

Dessa Bergen-Cico, an associate professor in the Department of Public Health, Food Studies and Nutrition at Falk College, wants to quantify those gains. She’s principal investigator and primary architect of a study that is measuring things like post-traumatic stress, quality of life, and negative thoughts among participants in the program.

“We want to help Clear Path, and organizations like it, establish evidencebased outcomes for programs like Dogs2Vets,” Bergen-Cico says. “There is a lot of personal testimony and observable benefits for these types of programs, but to sustain and fund them requires scientific evidence.”

Preliminary results of the program assessment look good, including a marked decrease in PTSD symptoms and negative thoughts and increased quality-of-life scores—the opposite of outcomes observed in a control group waiting to enroll in Dogs2Vets.

The researchers are working as volunteers. With department colleague Professor Brooks Gump, Bergen-Cico has been able to pay for gift card incentives for the veterans, with funding from a grant Gump directs from the National Science Foundation.

One of the volunteers is Colin Gooley G’17, who’s pursuing his master’s in social work at Falk; Gooley interns at Clear Path. “From what I have witnessed here, and what I know of military culture, the sense of purpose and the goal-oriented structure of the Dogs2Vets program offer something to veterans that not many other programs can offer—where the mission at hand is to work hard alongside the dog and eventually have the dog become certified as a service dog,” he says.

Gooley is gratified he can give back to those who served their country. “U.S. military personnel may endure a lot of traumatic life events,” he says. “Being able to show my support in this behind-the-scenes way—helping with the research—means a lot to me.”

Bergen-Cico appreciates his help and all the volunteers. “I am just the person working on the numbers and research behind the scenes,” she says. “The people at Clear Path and the veterans and volunteers are the stars, the people who are doing the real work.”

Bergen-Cico is an advocate of complementary and integrative strategies that help people suffering with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addictions. Dogs2Vets fits that to a T.

“I have witnessed the profound effect companion and therapeutic dogs can have on people and that people can have on dogs,” she says. “There is a nonverbal bond there. Dogs are the only animal that is naturally attracted to and curious about humans. As a researcher, I want to know how and why we benefit so much from this type of relationship.”

The veterans just know they do. Asked about the benefits of Dogs2Vets, one veteran said, “to have a companion, and someone to always have my back. To help keep me calm, and level, and balanced. To help me do better in public, and be brave and visit more places, and try more and new situations, plus things I haven’t done in years”