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To Some Veterans, Dogs Are Heroes, Too

Dogs Helping Heroes

Nathan Warner met his pug-shepherd mix, Umbra, shortly after returning from Afghanistan, where he was stationed in 2006 and 2007 with the U.S. Army National Guard. He'd also served in Kuwait and Iraq, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Warner was "Eleven Bravo," part of the 11B Infantry -- the National Guard's main land combat force. His time in the service left him with challenges.

"There's a lot of social anxiety, a lot of guilt, and a lot of isolation," Warner says.

But having Umbra around meant that no matter how he was feeling, he had to go for walks outside, had to get to the grocery for dog food, had to get out of bed every day. And life with a long-coated dog (black with white spots) meant regular brushing gave them a built-in rhythm and routine.

"Him in my life, the responsibility that brings, the companionship, being able to train him and have a partner made a lot of my life more bearable," Warner says. "Genuinely, I don't think I would've gotten this far without him."

Umbra passed away back in March.

"I didn't really leave my apartment for about three months."

Through a friend, Nathan heard about a program called Dogs Helping Heroes. The non-profit organization, founded in 2013 by dog trainer David Benson, pairs service dogs with military veterans and first responders, "or as we like to call them, heroes," Benson says. He says a lot of the veterans they work with are suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and physical limitations.

"They might not be able to do something as simple as bend down to tie their shoes -- standing back up can be a challenge," Benson says. "So these dogs are used as a prosthetic, and they're also used for emotional support."

'At Ease'

Benson didn't set out to found a non-profit for dogs and veterans. It started when he tried to use his years of dog training experience to solve a problem in his own family.

"In 2006, my brother-in-law was hit by an IED in Iraq," he says. "In 2007, my sister called me, and told me, basically, that my brother-in-law was not coming out of the house."

Benson's sister was sleeping in a different room because of her husband's frequent night terrors, and their two small kids rarely saw their dad. Benson found a yellow Labrador Retriever named Major, and took him to the family in Pennsylvania. They trained the puppy in basic obedience, then Benson stepped in to help teach specific service dog commands. Other veterans and their families heard about what they were doing, and more requests started coming in for these specialized helper dogs. As of now, they've matched nine dogs with veterans, and plan to place eight more next year.

The most important command a Dogs Helping Heroes dog learns is called, "at ease." The "at ease" command tells the dog to paw at, lick, bark at, or otherwise engage with their person, with the goal of interrupting panic or anxiety. Initially in training, "at ease" is given as a verbal command. But once a dog is matched with a veteran, it learns to recognize physical signs of stress that are specific to that person.

"Some of our heroes will rub their legs, some of them will hold their head in their hands, some will clench their fists," Benson says.

Eventually, those physical signs themselves prompt the dog's "at ease" behavior, with no verbal command necessary.

Benson uses the example of being on a walk and hearing a car backfire.

"That can trigger PTSD, which can cause panic attacks," Benson says. "The dog starts pawing at them, or barking at them. What it does is, it refocuses the hero, so now the hero is refocused on the dog, and it takes them out of that unwanted emotional state much faster."

From Prison to Parade

Dogs Helping Heroes representatives marched in the Veteran's Day Parade on Friday in Louisville, and they brought along a special guest: Nathan Warner's new service dog, Lizzy. The two met for the very first time in the parade's staging area near 3rd and Main Streets. It was Warner's first time out of his apartment in over a week, and he'd be walking with a new dog in front of thousands of people.

"I didn't sleep much at all last night," Warner says. "I got about two hours."

"She's enthusiastic, she's very eager to please," Warner says of his new companion. Her long, soft coat is a lot like Umbra's, he says, but without the white spots. Her training is still in progress, but she's minding her manners pretty well amidst the loudness of a parade.

"She's just super, super excited about everything that's going on right now," Warner says. "There's quite a few distractions -- she's doing very well, considering."

Just two days before the parade, Lizzy was living inside the Kentucky State Reformatory, a medium-security prison near LaGrange, Kentucky. She'd spent three months there being trained in basic obedience by inmates as part of the Humane Society of Oldham County's Camp K-9 program.

"It helps rehabilitate the inmates," David Benson says. "There are veterans and first responders that are, unfortunately, in the prisons, so we get to help them as well."

Benson says spending time with inmates is just part of the good these dogs bring to the world. Participants in his program have now started taking their service dogs to V.A. hospitals to act as therapy dogs for other vets who are going through medical treatments.

"These dogs not only help one individual, there's countless people that they help, from start to finish," he says.

Most of the program's dogs come from animal shelters, but there's one special exception coming soon. Benson's brother-in-law's life was completely turned around by living with Major. He's now a dog breeder, and is donating a puppy to Dogs Helping Heroes.

"He's always told me, 'Dave, I want to give back to you,'" Benson says.

Nathan & Lizzy

Lizzy's life with Nathan Warner has just started, but things are already changing. People along the parade route keep stopping him to ask about Lizzy, or talk to her, or pet her.

"Having the dog there makes me more approachable, and I'm fairly sociable once I start talking, but I will never start talking of my own volition," he says. "And I find that the more I socialize, I wind up much more content with life and more focused on the positive aspects of things around me."

Benson says Lizzy's ability to calmly go from prison to parade in just two days shows her temperament is a good fit for Warner's needs. And despite the isolation and sadness he's felt since losing Umbra, Warner is hopeful about what he and Lizzy can bring to each other's lives.

"I don't know that a dog will fix me," he says, glancing down at Lizzy, by his side. "But I know that between the combination of where I was before with a dog, and where I am now without, I was much better with a dog."

Laura is LPM's Director of Podcasts & Special Projects. Email Laura at lellis@lpm.org.