Serving Those Who Serve: How Wounded Warrior Dogs are Helping Veterans

Wounded Warrior Program
Wounded Warrior Program

Many brave military men and woman put their lives on the line every day to protect their fellow Americans. Unfortunately, they often return home with unwelcome reminders of their service, such as physical disabilities or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In these cases, veterans can use a little extra help in resuming their lives at home, and that’s where wounded warrior dogs come in.

Assistance dogs — canines specially trained to help people manage physical or emotional problems — have been around for years. There are the well-known guide and hearing dogs who help the blind and the deaf, therapy dogs who help people with cognitive or emotional problems, and service dogs who primarily help the physically disabled and/or mobility impaired.

Now, thanks to organizations like Tender Loving CaninesWarrior Canine ConnectionK9s For Warriors, and several others, assistance and service dogs are helping disabled veterans. These amazing, highly-specialized wounded warrior dogs are trained to provide assistance, support, and companionship to emotionally and physically disabled service members and post-war veterans, helping them transition from the armed forces into civilian life.

Here’s a look at how these amazing wounded warrior dogs are changing lives and making America a better place.

Helping with PTSD

Wounded warrior dogs help veterans cope with their life at home and the transitions they face when going from military life in a war zone to civilian life, and the everyday noises we don’t even notice. For a war veteran, those noises are often overwhelming and can trigger flashbacks.

When wounded warrior dogs with PTSD training sense that those noises are getting to their humans, they’ll offer comfort. That comfort might mean gently laying his head in his human’s lap, and even a gentle nudge to encourage stroking and petting that will calm his overstressed veteran. Studies show that stroking a pet can lower blood pressure and reduce stress hormone production. The limbic system releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin in both dogs and humans when they interact. Stroking an animal also releases pain-suppressing endorphins and calming neurotransmitters like dopamine.

Wounded warrior dogs can even sense when their humans are about to have a flashback and will initiate activities to head it off. These dogs look out for their human partners 24 hours a day; they’ll gently awaken and comfort someone having a nightmare.

Col. Matthew St. Laurent, chief of occupational therapy/department of rehabilitation for the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, oversees the Walter Reed Wounded Warrior Service Dog Training Program (WWSDTP), which uses veterans with trauma to train dogs to help other wounded warriors. Helping train dogs for others can help ease the survivor’s guilt that’s common amongst those who returned when some of their buddies didn’t.

Most of the dogs they train are mobility dogs. This type of service dog helps amputees, paraplegics, and others with physical challenges. Most people don’t even realize they’re doing something as simple as flipping a light switch — until they can’t. Not being able to flip that switch, or do any of a hundred other simple daily tasks, is endlessly frustrating for someone who can’t do it anymore. That never-ending frustration also feeds the sense of hopelessness and depression which burden so many of our veterans.

This is another way wounded warrior dogs are making a difference — by helping their humans pick up dropped keys, open doors, turn lights on and off, grab drinks from the refrigerator, and even get dressed!

Training Wounded Warrior Dogs to Help Veterans

The training of wounded warrior dogs generally takes from 18 to 30 months, and like other service dogs, is often started when the dog is just a puppy. During that time, these dedicated pooches will learn how to do up to 90 different tasks. The talented wounded warrior dogs can even learn when their humans are due to take medicine — and to bark at them until they take it.

The benefits of that training show up in the improved quality of life that wounded warrior dogs provide. Their humans enjoy greater freedom and independence thanks to their new best friends. Sometimes it’s hard to ask a stranger to open a door for you, but it’s easier to have your dog do it —- and the coolness factor is off the charts!

It’s that coolness factor, and the natural charm of dogs, that helps open up social interactions for an often withdrawn veteran. Feeling safe is particularly important for veterans who experience uneasiness, stress, or even panic at the idea of venturing out in public. Wounded warrior dogs help calm them and reduce their anxieties. The veterans know they can trust their wounded warrior dogs — the dogs’ extraordinary senses are always on alert and the dogs always have their human partners’ backs.

Having someone who ‘gets’ you, who never judges, and who loves you unconditionally can make the difference between a deep (and possibly deadly) depression and a veteran who has something (and someone) to live for. Wounded warrior dogs are truly giving America’s heroes a renewed purpose in life, and for that, they should be exulted and commended.