In May of 2012, Tiffany Baker, an Army National Guard soldier, was stationed in Afghanistan. While on patrol with her unit, her Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle hit a 250-pound IED. This violent moment left Baker suffering from two broken hips and traumatic brain injury (TBI). After three years of surgery, physical therapy, counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, medication, and countless trips to the VA, Baker medically retired from the National Guard, exhausted and isolated.
Like many of our men and women who choose to serve, prior to the explosion, Baker was a go-getter, passionate for life. Afterward, however, she was drastically changed; imprisoned by her emotions and fearful to connect with the outside world. Too proud to ask for help, she rarely got out of bed, feared public places with numerous people, slept little due to nightmares, and distanced herself from family and loved ones.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.” The National Center for PTSD and the Department of Defense both affirm that seeking help for PTSD, TBI, and Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is a true sign of strength. Tiffany Baker realized she needed help. After counseling and prescribed medication left her swimming in the dark waters of PTSD and TBI, she tried a new approach: Baker reached out to K9s For Warriors.
K9s For Warriors is a BBB-accredited non-profit organization that pairs rescued canines with post-9/11 veterans suffering from PTSD, TBI, or MST. Founded by Shari Duval after her son returned from his second tour in Iraq with PTSD, the program focuses on giving our warriors the power to return to civilian life with honor and independence. To date, K9s For Warriors has rescued 870 dogs and aided 440 veterans to work with their PTSD. In a recent interview with ConsumersAdvocate.org, President Brett Simon said, “K9s For Warriors sees it as two battles, fighting the past of the dog and fighting the past of the warrior. We’re saving two lives here.”
Every dog within the K9s For Warriors program is a rescue. The trainers, many of whom are graduates of the program themselves, visit multiple rescue shelters throughout the US to save these animals. It takes upwards of 6 months and $27,000 to train a service dog specific to the unique needs of PTSD treatment. K9s For Warriors service dogs perform extraordinary tasks: averting panic attacks, providing a comfort zone to the warrior in a public area, waking warriors from nightmares, and reminding the warrior to take their medication. As many warriors suffer from physical disabilities, the “brace” command prepares the dog to assist the warrior with standing, sitting, or kneeling. The “cover” command is used to cover the warrior’s back, or “have his 6.” Many warriors with PTSD dislike people coming up from behind them. The service dog “has the warrior’s 6” by sitting and facing the opposite way the warrior is facing. When someone approaches from behind, the dog wags its tail to notify the warrior.
K9s For Warriors is completely free for our veterans, surviving solely on donations, food from charitable restaurants and homes, and Volunteer Ambassadors. Based out of Ponte Vedra, FL, the program is available to all veterans, no matter their location. Transportation, if unavailable to the warrior, is provided by K9s For Warriors. During their three-week stay at one of the program’s two campuses (with a third, solely female campus to open in 2019), the warrior is paired with a service dog and learns how to work with their new compatriot. Aided by the trainers and the many “Housemoms,” women who are there to lend a listening ear to the warriors, the veteran is surrounded by physical and emotional support to progressively transition back into civilian life. K9s For Warriors also provides lifelong insurance for the service dogs they gift to our warriors.
K9s For Warriors recently teamed up with Purdue University for a study testing the effectiveness of service dogs as a treatment for veterans who suffer from PTSD. Dr. Maggie O’Haire, assistant professor of human-animal interaction, worked with 141 veterans waiting to join the program or currently enrolled with K9s For Warriors. Half had service dogs; the other half did not. The initial findings of Dr. O’Haire’s research show “lower depression, lower PTSD symptoms, lower levels of anxiety, and lower absenteeism from work due to health issues.”
Dr. Hsiao, the Program Director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at the National Institute of Health (NIH), awarded the NCATS Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) to Dr. O’Haire to further fund the study. “The study found that PTSD symptoms were significantly lower in veterans with service dogs. This is an innovative approach to a serious medical issue,” said Dr. Hsiao. “This study highlights the unique skills that the CTSA Program hubs bring to address difficult conditions like PTSD.” When commenting on the study, Dr. Anantha Shekhar, a professor at Indiana University School of Medicine, says “Service dogs are a great resource for veterans to modulate their own reactions and to cope better with symptoms of PTSD.”
In 2015, Tiffany Baker met Buddy through K9s For Warriors. Buddy was severely abused and neglected by his owner. When discovered, Buddy was found tied to a tree without food or water. Like so many other dogs, Buddy was dropped off at the local animal shelter with little hope to ever see the light of day again. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), over 670,000 dogs are euthanized every year. Thanks to K9s For Warriors, Buddy was not one of them.
“K9s For Warriors is great at pairing the dog with veterans,” says Baker. She explains that Buddy always covers her back. He’s “got her 6,” and he creates a safe barrier between her and other people, allowing her to function in public. With Buddy’s help, Tiffany has embraced a new take on life. She recently graduated from Waukesha County Technical College with a degree in business management and an emphasis in social media marketing. She also contributed to the PAWS (Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members) Act of 2017. The bill directs the VA to carry out a five-year pilot program, providing grant funding to qualifying nonprofits that provide service dogs to military members or veterans who suffer from PTSD after they finalize other traditional treatments. As Baker puts it, “Just as Buddy is my service dog, I am Buddy’s service human.” The two rescued each other.