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Louisiana Counseling Association teams up with pups to help veterans

Heather Rudow July 3, 2012

Beth Zilbert with Luke, her therapy dog.

The Louisiana Counseling Association (LCA) has teamed up with the Louisiana National Guard and a local animal rescue program to aid the mental health of the state’s veteran population and save dogs’ lives in the process.

The collaboration, called the Patriot Dog Program, will pair returning service members living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with rescue dogs that have been trained to become therapy dogs. In a sense, both parties will get a second chance at life.

Beth Zilbert, president of the Humane Society of Louisiana, Southwest Louisiana Chapter and founder of the local rescue program A New Leash on Life, first approached LCA, a branch of the American Counseling Association, with the idea to incorporate veterans into the rescue program.

A New Leash on Life takes dogs that are rescued from natural disasters or abandoned by owners and brings them to the local juvenile detention center, where eligible residents have been taught by professional dog trainers on how to care for and train the dogs. Most dogs are then placed with area families.

However, Zilbert, wanted to expand A New Leash on Life — she envisioned training the dogs to become therapy dogs and pairing them with veterans living with PTSD. She says she saw the positive potential that dogs could have on the service members’ lives.

“Therapy dogs help people with PTSD from becoming too isolated, where the dark thoughts that plague them can take over and run their tragic course,” says Zilbert. “A person with PTSD has to get out of their house each day to walk and care for their dog, who also provides protection and comfort and a never-ending source of unconditional love. They don’t have to say out loud the fearful images that keep them up at night. They get instant understanding and comfort without speaking a word.”

Zilbert knows this from her experience with her own therapy dog, Luke. She was paired with her dog after a serious car accident in 2010.

“I was in the front passenger seat of the vehicle and was lucky enough to be pulled alive out of that car,” Zilbert says.  “The man who hit us — broadside in the middle of the day at 75 to 100 mph — killed my good friend who was driving the car and his wife who was a passenger in his car instantly. I was injured fairly seriously, with a crushed left arm that I almost lost, but never lost consciousness throughout the duration of the accident.  It took rescuers nearly an hour to get me out of that vehicle, the whole time they were working I was hanging suspended only by my seatbelt, bleeding over the dead body of my dear friend.”

Though she survived the wreck, Zilbert was later diagnosed with severe PTSD. She needed to learn how to readjust to the world around her, which was when Luke came into the picture.

“Luke made sure that I was never alone so that I could never really allow the dark thoughts to follow along to their tragic conclusion,” says Zilbert of her faithful companion, a golden retriever mix. “He made me have to go out, even when all I wanted to do was curl up in a corner of the bed. He made it so that there was a safety net of basic comfort and unconditional love always, constantly by my side.  He helped with the nightmares during thunderstorms. He still helps when some of the hyper-vigilance starts to kick in.  He also helped people begin to approach me with smiles on their faces, instead of sadness and pity. I am an attorney for a nonprofit, and I represent kids in court and domestic violence survivors, and he also helps me interview and work with my clients.  He is, in short, one of God’s wonders, and I cannot believe that he chose me in this life! I must not ever take that for granted.”

Zilbert wanted the veterans who were struggling the same way she had been to finally feel relief, and she knew that contacting LCA was a good first step in getting the ball rolling on her plan. LCA Past-President Brenda Roberts agreed, citing the organization’s longstanding involvement with and dedication to Louisiana’s veteran population.

“I attended a meeting regarding the expansion of [A New Leash on Life] and indicated that the Louisiana Counseling Association has a partnership with the Louisiana National Guard and that I believed we could make the connection between the program and the military,” Roberts says. “Many of the counselors in the state are already providing services to our military, and it is our hope that this program will be adjunctive to the counseling already being provided.”

Additionally, Roberts was the counselor who diagnosed Zilbert with PTSD, and the one Zilbert credits — aside from Luke — with saving her life.

Diane Austin, executive director for LCA, says that the organization’s partnership with the National Guard won the branch the 2011 ACA Innovative Idea Award.

“Several years ago, as the National Guard began to see a need for increased mental health services for the returning service men and women, and within this partnership, LCA has created several programs,” she says, “[such as] a referral list of licensed professional counselors, which is the … collection of toys for guard families, and now the Patriot Dog Program.”

“All veterans experience war differently, yet all returning veterans bring a part of the war home with them,” says Cindy Escandell, director of Psychological Health for the Louisiana National Guard, LCA National Guard Liaison and member of the LCA. “Some veterans are able to reintegrate back into home life and society with little or no difficulty. Unfortunately, some veterans find day-to-day life at home more challenging than being in the war zone.”

The Patriot Dogs program officially began earlier this year. The first two veterans in the program will be matched with their new dogs no later than Thanksgiving. The veterans will be part of the training process, and the dogs will be specifically trained for the soldiers’ needs.

The dogs’ transition from rescue dogs to trained service dogs requires the dogs to pass through multiple hands. First, residents at the local juvenile detention center teach the dogs basic commands. Then, the dogs are taught more advanced commands at Calcasieu Correctional Center, a women’s correctional facility, in order to become service and therapy dogs.

Escandell says that service dogs are becoming a popular choice of treatment for veterans struggling with PTSD. “Veterans with PTSD may re-experience the traumatic event,” she says. “They may often avoid people, places or feelings that remind them of the event and may feel keyed up or on the edge all the time. The good news is that PTSD is treatable.  The bad news is that many veterans diagnosed with PTSD do not seek treatment due to stigma, embarrassment, shame or fear it will hurt their military career.  Currently, the main treatment options available include pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy such as Prolonged Exposure.  Many veterans do not like the stigma attached to taking medication or the possible side effects.  Others do not like the stigma of being in therapy.  More and more veterans are choosing service dogs as an alterative treatment for PTSD.  Service dogs are specifically and professionally trained to recognize symptoms of PTSD and react to calm their owners, to wake their owners up from nightmares or any number of services that would minimize the veteran’s reoccurring symptoms of PTSD.  The dogs provide a stimulus to break the loop and bring the veteran back to reality before they engage in harmful or reckless behavior.”

Many Louisiana National Guard members have had multiple deployments, which exposed them to a number of stressors, Escandell says.  “These stressors can alter their perception of life experiences when they return home,” she says.  “Many programs are available to help veterans adjust to their ‘new normal.’ The Patriot Dog Program is [an] initiative to help our veterans overcome the symptoms of PTSD and give them the opportunity to enjoy the freedoms they have fought for.”

According to statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs, between 11 and 20 percent of veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD.  The actual number of veterans with undiagnosed or untreated PTSD is unknown.

Roberts adds that the “suicide rate for soldiers returning from deployment is so high that this alone would say that we need something more than merely outpatient counseling to assist these people in dealing with what happened to them.” Roberts cites service dogs as a good first step.

According to current numbers, approximately 18 veterans across the country commit suicide every day.

Roberts says she would like to see LCA’s efforts with therapy dogs eventually stretch beyond service members with PTSD. “At some point in the future, I would like to see this program expanded even further to include training for all appropriate dogs and incarcerated inmates so that the therapy dogs could be matched with any person with appropriate mental health needs,” Roberts says.

Though it is still in the early stages, Escandell says LCA has already seen benefits stemming from the program.

“At the invitation of LTC Scott Adams, Reintegration Director for the Louisiana National Guard, [Zilbert] and her a service dog, Luke, were invited to attend a Yellow Ribbon reintegration weekend in New Orleans with returning veterans and their families,” Escandell says. “The Yellow Ribbon events provide service members and their families education on relationship issues, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, depression, anger management and substance abuse programs, resources, referrals, and services to minimize stress on families during the post-deployment phase. [Zilbert] and Luke received a warm welcome from all attendees.  Information on the Patriot Dog Program was given to service members and family members.  Several service members expressed interest in our program and are in the process of completing the paperwork.”

In order to fully educate all interested licensed professional counselors in Louisiana, Zilbert, Roberts and Escandell will give a briefing on the Patriot Dog Program at LCA’s annual conference in October.

Zilbert is grateful for her collaboration with LCA because of the “win/win” situation the Patriot Dogs Program provides: rescue dogs find happy, loving homes, and service members get to adjust to life after combat with less symptoms of PTSD.

“It is often difficult to believe,” Zilbert says, “in this modern world, where suffering and grief experienced in far corners of the globe is presented to us each day, with our morning coffee and evening meal, on the news, all day long across our computer screens at work, that there could be a simple act, with no bad consequences that can heal so many so fundamentally as the Patriot Dogs Program has the potential to do.”

A listing of licensed professional counselors in Louisiana who are available to work at military events is located on the LCA website.

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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