Lending a Paw for Veterans

Robert Soliz, a 31-year-old former Army Specialist, participates in Paws for Purple Hearts. (Joseph Matthews, Veterans Affairs Photo)

After being married for just six weeks, Mark, a U.S.Army veteran who was stationed in Iraq, sustained severe combat injuries, rendering him quadriplegic. When he arrived home, he felt despair and sadness. He could no longer do the things he once loved, and he had to depend on others for assistance.

The last thing Mark wanted to do was overburden his new wife. He struggled with how he could be more independent, until the day he met and fell in love with Gus.

Mark met Gus for the first time at an intense two-week training program at Canine Companions, a non-profit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs. Gus is a handsome yellow Labrador/Golden Retriever that is cross trained to respond to approximately 50 commands. Gus has changed Mark’s life for the better, giving him more independence and the confidence that he could still do many of the things he loved in life before he became disabled.

In another instance, Robert Soliz was one of 300,000 U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When Soliz arrived home, he could no longer show affection for his children as he did before he left, couldn’t go to movies anymore without having a panic attack, and was always scanning behind him to make sure he wasn’t going to get attacked.

Soliz felt isolated and his family was deteriorating. He turned to his local VA Medical Center, and credits a bag of dog treats hanging on a closet door at the hospital with sparking the idea that saved his life. He now participates in Paws for Purple Hearts, one of four experimental programs nationwide that pair veterans afflicted by PTSD with Labrador and golden retrievers. Launched in 2008, the program arranges for a veteran to spend six weeks with a dog, training it to be a mobility-assistance animal for a physically disabled veteran. With the help of his therapeutic pet, Soliz says his life is slowly coming back to him. He now can go to the movies without panicking—and hug and kiss his two kids.

Evidence also shows that cats can also help those with PTSD. Please read the Cat Fancy article, “Feline Comfort – Evidence Suggests that Cats Can Help People Cope with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome,” for more details. We will certainly cover cats who lend their paws for therapy in a future article or in Critter Corner!

Benefits of Therapeutic Dogs for Veterans

It’s no surprise that dogs can soothe and relax people, but other benefits are less predictable. These are some of the profound benefits that dogs have had on veterans:

• The animals draw out even the most isolated personality.

• Having to praise the animals helps traumatized veterans overcome emotional numbness.

• Teaching the dogs service commands develops a patient’s ability to communicate, to be assertive but not aggressive, a distinction some struggle with.

• PTSD soldiers paired with a dog are more likely to work, encouraging independence.

• The dogs can also eases the hypervigilance common in vets with PTSD. Some participants report they finally got some sleep knowing that a naturally alert soul was standing watch.

• Paired with the right dog, soldiers are less likely to require drugs for their condition, or least as many drugs or lower dosages (limiting side effects), and even less likely to commit suicide (a real issue among returning veterans).

• Researchers are accumulating evidence that bonding with dogs has biological effects, such as elevated levels of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin improves trust, the ability to interpret facial expressions, the overcoming of paranoia and other pro-social effects—the opposite of PTSD symptoms.

About 300 vets have participated in therapeutic pet placement programs for veterans, and some graduates report impressive strides. So, where can a vet get a pet?

Canine Companions for Independence: Canine Companions for Independence provides professionally trained assistance dogs for people with physical disabilities. The specially-bred Labradors and Golden Retrievers help with everything from turning on lights to getting cash from an ATM. Through Canine Companions Wounded Veterans Initiative, assistance dogs are available to Veterans with physical disabilities resulting from military service, free of charge.

Paws4Vets: Paws4Vets’ primary mission is to train and provide qualified individuals with certified assistance dogs custom trained to fit their individual requirements and needs.  Currently, placements will be considered in the nine Mid Atlantic states where they have a presence. (VA, WV, OH, PA, MD, NC, SC, GA, FL).

Paws for Purple Hearts – Bergin University of Canine Studies:‎ If you are interested in requesting a service dog, please contact Bergin University’s dog program manager at

America’s VetDogs: America’s VetDogs trains and provides guide dogs for veterans who are blind or visually impaired, service dogs for veterans and active duty personnel with disabilities other than blindness, combat stress relief dogs for in-theater deployment, and therapy dogs to provide physical and emotional therapy services at select military and VA hospitals.

Canines for Service: Canines for Veterans, a program of Canines for Service, is a national program that provides Veterans with disabilities quality trained service dogs. The program works with military prisoners teaching them how to train rescue dogs as service dogs for the wounded and injured Veterans. Service dogs are provided to qualified recipients at no cost to the recipient.

Patriot Paws Service Dogs: Patriot Paws Service Dogs is a nonprofit organization that trains and donates service dogs for disabled Veterans. Service dogs are able to assist physically disabled individuals to accomplish daily tasks that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. Each dog is customized to the individual needs of the owner.

Veteran’s Aid and Attendance

If you are a veteran, you may qualify for a special pension benefit called Veteran’s Aid and Attendance. As an Accredited Attorney with the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, I understand both the Aid and Attendance Benefit and the Medicaid program and the interaction between both benefit programs. The Veterans Aid and Attendance benefit can provide more than $25,000 annually for an eligible married veteran, more than $21,000 annually for a single veteran, and over $13,000 annually for the surviving spouse of a qualified veteran. (Please visit our website to see the 2015 figures.)

Eligibility criteria includes:

• Those over 65 do not have to be disabled; veterans under 65 must be 100% disabled. The veteran or spouse must be in need of regular aid and attendance due to inability to dress oneself, feed oneself, loss of coordination or other conditions, as described on our website, and there must be actual ongoing caregiving services being received from someone else.

• You or your spouse must have served on active duty for at least 90 days, at least one day of which occurred during a period designated as wartime (see our website). There must have been a non-dishonorable discharge as well. Single surviving spouses of such veterans are also eligible.

For more details about Veteran’s Aid and Attendance and other veterans’ benefits, please sign up to receive my Aid & Attendance 4-Part Mini Series via e-mail.

Applying for veteran’s benefits, such as Veteran’s Aid and Attendance, is always a confusing and arduous task, fraught with perils along the way. Here at the Farr Law Firm, we work with veterans and their spouses to evaluate whether they qualify for the Veterans Aid and Attendance Benefit and/or Medicaid, and we take care of all the paperwork. Please contact us as soon as possible to make an appointment for a consultation:

Fairfax Veteran’s Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Veteran’s Attorney: 540-479-143
Rockville Veteran’s Attorney: 301-519-8041
DC Veteran’s Attorney: 202-587-2797

P.S. Another benefit of being a veteran is a 15% discount off all services at the Farr Law Firm. We hope to see your family soon!

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About Renee Eder

Renee Eder is the Director of Public Relations for the Farr Law Firm, and gives the voice to the Critters of Critter Corner. Renee’s poodle, Penny, is an official comfort dog who she and her children bring to visit with seniors who are in the early stages of dementia at a local senior home once a month.

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