In her former life, Sierra was chained in front of a methamphetamine lab in Wyoming.
Sierra’s rescuers took the Labrador mix to an animal shelter and noticed her good temperament and eagerness to please. They brought Sierra to Freedom Service Dogs in Colorado, where trainers and war veterans from Fort Carson taught her how to be a service dog.
“It was like she knew me and I knew her,” Guerrero said of their first meeting. “We haven’t parted since.”
Sierra assists Guerrero around the clock. She picks up items Guerrero dropped, unloads clothes from the dryer, and pushes elevator buttons. The only time Sierra barks is when Guerrero needs his wife, and the dog will find her or when someone is at the door. When Guerrero was in the hospital for recent shoulder surgery, Sierra was at his bedside. She also gives Guerrero a sense of purpose because he must care for the dog as well.
The canine boosts Guerrero’s visibility when he advocates on behalf of veterans in Denver – Sierra is more popular among the senators, he jokes. Guerrero serves on the legislative committee for the United Veterans Committee of Colorado.
Sierra’s constant companionship produced a side effect, Guerrero said – she lowered his blood pressure.
Now he calls for pairing more injured war veterans with service dogs, because the animals help the veterans live independently and provide comfort.
“So many guys are on drugs because of injuries, PTSD and traumatic brain injury,” Guerrero said. “If they can get off the pills it would be savings for the government and the taxpayer.”
Senators Al Franken and Johnny Isakson also think service dogs provide invaluable help to wounded war veterans. The two recently sponsored a bill to pair at least 200 veterans and dogs in a three-year pilot program, according to published reports. The program would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to partner with non-profit groups. The Senate passed their bill Friday. Guerrero said he and Freedom Service Dogs will support the bill, and he plans to tell Colorado legislators to back Franken’s proposal.
Non-profit groups such as Freedom Service Dogs are meeting a growing demand to provide service dogs to wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Other volunteers use their dogs to comfort veterans in hospitals.
Since Freedom Service Dogs began in 1987, the group graduated three to five dog/client teams a year. Then the group partnered with the Wounded Warriors program at Fort Carson and moved into a larger training facility. This year Freedom Service Dogs graduated 10 human/dog teams – five of them veterans. The group has 43 clients – some of them veterans – on a waiting list.
The organization takes abandoned dogs into its program, in which about 20 war veterans from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Wounded Warriors help train the canines to be service dogs. The veteran volunteers are not only helping the dogs, they are helping themselves.
“It gives them a sense of purpose, something new to do, a new skill,” said Diane Vertovec, Freedom Service Dogs spokeswoman. “It gets them involved. They are on schedule two days a week and have to be on training floor, which helps with transition.”
Canines that don’t complete training are adopted out. Dogs who take to the training are paired with severely wounded veterans free of charge.
Many service members requesting a dog suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injuries, Vertovec said. From 2003 to 2007, the Military Health System recorded 43,779 patients with traumatic brain injury and 39,365 with PTSD, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
From September 2001 through January 2009, 1,286 soldiers from Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts had their limbs amputated, according to the report. Guerrero said these veterans may have expensive prostheses, but they still can’t scrape small items such as credit cards off the floor.
Traumatic brain injuries affect short-term and mid-term memory, causing the patient to lose track of essential things such as keys. When the humans are teetering, the canines brace themselves so their handlers can lean on them.
Soldiers with PTSD can become anxious in crowds. The canines can sense their human’s fear and act as barriers. The dogs also act as four-legged therapists who are available anytime their humans need them.
“When you become depressed, you get into a situation where you can call the VA [Veterans Affairs hospital] but the VA isn’t there,” Guerrero said. “You have to call them, get an appointment. The dog is with you now. You don’t need a pill; you can pet the dog on the head and feel 10 times better.”
Service dogs in the Puppies Behind Bars program perform “Got Your Back” for soldiers with PTSD, said Gloria Gilbert Stoga, president and founder of the organization. The dog sits beside his human but faces what’s going on behind the soldier.
The dogs can also “Cop a Corner,” for service members nervous about entering strange rooms.
“In Iraq they’re used to knocking down doors and a lot of times they don’t know what’s in the room,” Gilbert Stoga said. “They don’t know what’s lying in wait in the room. On command the dog will stop and look to the left and right so the soldier knows nothing bad is there.”
Like Freedom Service Dogs, Puppies Behind Bars is a non-profit that provides canines to clients. Gilbert Stoga founded the organization in 1997 and enlisted prison inmates to raise the puppies to be guide dogs for the blind or visually impaired, service dogs or bomb-sniffing dogs.
Inmates can be the ideal volunteers because they can devote the nearly two years needed to train the puppies. Some incarcerated trainers are serving time for serious crimes and are remorseful for them.
“They need to contribute to society,” Gilbert Stoga said. “They’ve taken from society. Taxpayers are literally paying their room and board. There aren’t many opportunities while incarcerated to give back to the community. The opportunity to do something for people on the outside especially someone they’re never going to meet or know makes for a more whole and healthier person.”
Puppies behind Bars began training dogs for service members in 2006. The group specializes in soldiers suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.
So far the program has placed 11 dogs with veterans, and the organization is hoping to pair another four dogs to service members by August. Labrador and Golden Retrievers used in the program come from breeders. Puppies that don’t make training are put up for adoption as pets.
Both Freedom Service Dogs and Puppies Behind Bars provide the service dogs at no charge, although it costs more than $20,000 to raise and train each canine. The non-profit groups rely largely on donations to pay their bills. Guerrero said he hopes Franken’s bill will propose to help veterans cover medical expenses for their service dogs. Veterans Affairs will cover medical care for guide dogs but not service dogs, he said.
Therapy animals such as Picazzo Milagro the Dalmatian may not be constantly with veterans, but when he visits patients at the VA West Los Angeles Health Care Center, he makes an impression, said his handler, Jill Blacher.
Picazzo once visited a patient who wouldn’t speak to anyone. He fixed his doggy gaze on the patient, and the patient began laughing. A psychologist later told Blacher that the patient didn’t communicate until he looked at the Dalmatian. Another time Picazzo licked a patient’s wounded hand. The patient later said his hand felt better.
“People call him a curandero, a healer,” Blacher said. “He makes contact with patients in a very profound way.”
Do you think the VA should support service or therapy dogs to help wounded war veterans recover? Do you know of other groups that provide service or therapy dogs to vets? Write your thoughts here.