For soldiers, the battles don’t always stop when they return home. For many, it’s the beginning of an entirely new war: one with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). As the conflicts in the Middle East continue, veterans regularly come home wounded and suffering from these debilitating brain disorders and injuries. Jim Stanek, a retired U.S. Army staff sergeant, knows the pain all too well — but he’s found a way to treat it and is helping others do the same.
While being treated for PTSD and TBI, Stanek learned the power of pups, as one shelter dog, Sarge, helped him recover and re-acclimate to everyday life. Jim and his wife, Lindsey, researched how Sarge could become an official service dog and also how they could get an official service dog, only to find that the costs were high and the waiting lists long.
“So we just decided to take it upon ourselves to create a program that would be specifically targeted to help [veterans] who have PTSD and traumatic brain injury, and use shelter dogs to help them,” Lindsey, a former veterinary assistant, says. The couple launched Paws & Stripes in 2010.
The New Mexico-based organization doesn’t charge veterans — funding comes from grants and donations — and the service dogs come from local rescues.
“Jim likes to comment on how important it is to use shelter dogs,” Lindsey says. “They’re isolated, they’re left in a kennel, they don’t have anyone who’s consistently giving them love, and they don’t know how to give love in a way that people want it. Veterans feel the same way when they come home, so they are really kindred spirits in that sense, and they can start off in the same playing field in our program.”
And, unlike with other organizations, in which the dogs are fully trained before being assigned to veterans and sent on their way, the Paws & Stripes experience is a mutual one for both the dogs and the veterans. During the nine-to-12-month program, the veterans learn to train the service dogs, while the dogs assist the veterans and help them navigate post-war life. Lindsey notes that this process — with the veterans actually participating in the training of service dogs — not only helps in the recovery from PTSD and TBI.
“By getting to do more than just receiving a service dog, the veterans understand it better,” she says. “We’re actually giving them the tools to navigate their environment and helping them take steps forward in their recovery and be more functional [in their lives].”
Lindsey, Jim, and their Paws & Stripes team go to great lengths to successfully select shelter dogs for the program and pair them up with veterans. They only work with adult dogs, ages two to four who are at least 50 healthy pounds, and do extensive temperament and skills testing to ensure the dogs are a good fit.
“There is a maturity level we need due to the fact that we’re not training them from puppies into adulthood,” Lindsey says. “They’re starting out in the homes of the veterans. We want to make sure they’re not too aggressive, they’re good with kids, and they have a work ethic. They have to want to work. There are some dogs who just don’t enjoy being service dogs, so you obviously wouldn’t want to put those dogs in the pool.”
Once Jim and the trainers screen shelter dogs for a specific veteran, they’ll bring him or her in to meet a small group of dogs. “We’re just looking for a reciprocal relationship,” Lindsey says. “Once the veteran knows that’s his dog, he’ll let us know for sure.”
Training begins the day after a match is made, and it includes group and one-on-one training, workshops, and education. The veterans and dogs together work their way through various milestones until they reach the point of the final certification test and graduation.
The training for the veterans and dogs doesn’t stop there, though. The pairs return annually for recertification, and the Staneks offer continuing education as well as any additional help the veterans may need.
Though Paws & Stripes is currently only a local New Mexico organization, the Staneks and their work were recently introduced to a much larger audience on A&E’s Dogs of War, which ended its first season in early December. If you missed it, don’t worry: You can catch up on all the episodes online. The show chronicled individual veterans’ journeys as they worked with Paws & Stripes and their service dogs on the path to recovery. While some veterans, understandably, prefer to keep their experiences private, Lindsey says many were more than willing to appear on the show.
“I gotta say, one thing about veterans is, if they know they can help another fellow vet, they’re almost always willing to do it,” she says. “That was [often] the motivation for the individuals you see on the show. All they wanted to do by participating was to make sure that they would be helping another veteran and his or her family, which I think is a really powerful thing. Our participation has always been about something bigger than ourselves.”
Indeed, the show has garnered a massively positive response, with the Staneks’ inboxes filling up with “hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of emails” and their social media pages with endless comments, from both people who have struggled with PTSD and TBI themselves and those who were unaware of the diseases and the power of service dogs.
“We had someone who wrote in who said, ‘I was never able to connect to my Vietnam veteran father until I watched this show, and now I understand what was happening with him,'” Lindsey says. “It’s been amazing.”
In the end, that’s what it’s all about for Jim, Lindsey, and the entire Paws & Stripes organization. Since launching the program, they’ve seen firsthand countless success stories and inspiring outcomes. Lindsey tells of one veteran who was never able to go Christmas shopping for his wife until he had a service dog by his side to help him navigate the chaotic holiday-shopping scene. Another vet relocated cross-country to take part in the Paws & Stripes program and, after successfully completing it, became a member of the staff as a senior trainer.
“That is one of the stories I think we’re most proud of, because he wasn’t satisfied to just stop at completing the program,” Lindsey says. “He wanted to pay it forward in the most grand sense.”
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About Emma Sarran: After a stint in New York City (and a brief affair with thin-crust pizza), Emma Sarran returned to her native Chicago, where she grew up loving Michael Jordan, lakeshore beaches, and deep dish. An eclectic personality, she writes about topics including travel, fashion, and relationships, often on her blog, Sarrandipity. She spends more time than she should admit talking to her two cats, Harlem (who has no sense of personal space) and Squeak (who’s afraid of her own shadow). Follow her on Twitter.