Canine Companions Can Help Vets’ Mental Health

Service Dogs for Veterans

CONSTANT COMPANION—Leo, a husky-malamute, is a service dog for Acorn columnist Rafael Stoneman. Courtesy photo

I get paid on the first of the month by the VA. But after rent, utilities, child support, etc., I’m always out of money by the last week of the month.

So I took a half-day job on a low-budget film shooting in Ojai. But that day in Ojai, as always, the main stressor was not money. My main worry was my white, 170-pound, husky-malamute service dog, Leo.

I can’t leave Leo home alone because of separation anxiety— I’m not sure if it’s mostly his anxiety or mine—so I took Leo to the job with me.

But then it got too hot. I had to leave Leo in the car: gas tank near empty, engine running, AC on max. Strange, I know: me working, worrying and sweating outside. Leo chilling inside.

So why all this fuss and bother and worry over a dog?

Newsweek recently cited a study of 975 dog-owning adults who, in times of emotional distress, were more likely to turn to their dogs than their family or friends.

To me, a dog’s unconditional love is above and beyond the love most humans can extend. People often have other priorities and obligations. But a dog has only one reason to live. Or, as a comic once said: “Without a dog, you’d never have anyone demonstrate how important it is to stop and smell the roses—and then lift your leg on them.”

 

Five years ago, my wife dragged me kicking and screaming to save a dog at a shelter.

I walked past the first scruffy small dog. No thanks. In the second cage was a not so small, 8-month-old, white, 105-pound husky-malamute with the given name of Leonitis.

I know Leon means lion. Itis is an inflammatory disease. And I assumed Leonitis was some kind of mythological god.

Scooting down and peering in at Leo, I could see he was panting, depressed and tired. He nuzzled over to me. That’s when I heard myself say, “I’m getting you out of here.”

I instantly abandoned all concern about our landlord’s no-dog rule. To heck with it, we would move elsewhere.

I started taking Leo with me to my tree trimming jobs. Outdoors, I could tether him on a long rope. He would hang out in the shade while I climbed trees in the hot sun.

When I couldn’t do that work anymore due to groin pain related to a surgery I had while in the Army, I found other ways to make a living. By then, Leo was accustomed to going everywhere with me.

As life unfolded—or maybe unraveled—my marriage collapsed and I couldn’t get enough work to pay rent and child support. So I ended up homeless.

But I still maintained full custody of Leo.

Obtaining housing through VASH, receiving disability from the VA, trying to find my stride again, and while volunteering at the Gold Coast Veterans Foundation, I began a whole new chapter.

Throughout it all, it became harder to leave Leo. I tried dogsitting places but could only go about two hours before I’d feel like Leo was missing me—or was I missing him?

When I started going to VA appointments, I couldn’t leave Leo in the car for such a long time. To bring him in meant he needed to be a service dog, so I had him certified.

It may seem bizarre that I don’t just find a way to make more money and pay for Leo to be in day care—which makes me question my real business in this world. Is it to make more money? Or is it to love and spend as much time as possible with a giant white dog—giving back to Leo as much as he has given to me?

Currently, the VA does not provide service dogs for veterans with physical or mental health conditions. Veterans who are approved for a guide or service dog are referred to accredited agencies. In some cases, where the use of service dogs is for PTSD, the VA will provide veterinary care.

In Ventura County, there is a local chapter of the national Pets for Vets organization and also the Southern California-based Paws 4 Healing.

I know everyone boasts that their pet is unique and special, but Leo is the star wherever he goes. People often yell out, “Look, it’s the dire wolf from ‘Game of Thrones,’” then take his photo.

I invite you to do the same when you see us out and about.

Stoneman, a former Ventura County homeless veteran, is now an intern at the Camarillo-based Gold Coast Veterans Foundation, a nonprofit organization. For more details, visit gcvf.org.

Source: The Camarillo Acorn – September 28, 2018 edition