Dogs Help Vets Deal with PTSD

Among motorcycles in all states of disassembly, the smell of motor oil and rumbling engines at south Orlando's Motorcycle Mechanics Institute walks a perky-eared and freckled pit-bull mix named Zoey.

The 2-year-old canine isn't a roughneck biker's mascot, but a service dog who helps Paul Aragon, aU.S. Army veteran and motorcycle maintenance student, deal with hispost-traumatic stress disorder.

"I tried therapy, but I'm not one to open up and talk. I also maxed out on the medications. My body got used to it, and they weren't working," said Aragon, 29, of El Paso, Texas. "Not only is Zoey better, but I'm not putting something unnatural in my system."

Though Aragon says Zoey is helping him with his PTSD, the Army's policy on where a soldier can acquire a service dog limits many veterans from finding a canine companion to help them overcome their anxiety disorders.

Aragon's PTSD often manifests itself in bouts of anxiety and irritability. When Zoey detects those changes in Aragon's demeanor, the dog distracts him with playful antics. He usually brings her to his motorcycle-maintenance courses only when he's feeling irritable or stressed.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder common among veterans of war but can occur after any traumatic event involving death or injury.

Laurie Tranter, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said more than 245,000 soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and who sought care at the VA received at least a preliminary diagnosis of PTSD from 2002 to March 2012.

There are a variety of treatments, including medication and therapy using virtual reality that places veterans in a simulated war-zone environment to discover what triggers their PTSD.

Aragon served in Iraq in three separate tours as an Army mechanic starting in October 2002. He retired as a sergeant in in November 2011.

He didn't disclose the details of his disorder, saying only that it is often triggered by crowds or tense interactions with people.

A recent incident involving a heated discussion at a local Walmart "got to a point where I'm really glad [Zoey] was there," Aragon said.

"Zoey notices that I'm getting upset, and she starts tugging away at the leash," he said. "She begins to play and jump and forces me focus on her. It takes my mind off the problem."

Debbie Kandoll of Mutts Assisting Soldier Heroes, or MASH, a New Mexico-based organization that trains canines from shelters to be service dogs, spent six months helping Aragon train Zoey after he adopted her from a New Mexico pound in October.

Aragon said his brown-eyed companion had a few weeks left at the pound before workers there would have been forced to euthanize her if no one adopted her.

Zoey is specifically trained to react to cues triggered by Aragon's PTSD. Kandoll said Zoey might bark, pull on her leash or stand on her hind legs for attention if she senses Aragon is stressed.

Kandoll said Aragon paid nothing for the training but spent around $450 on costs associated with acquiring Zoey.

Training a service dog can cost $2,000 to $20,000 depending on the type of dog, the organization providing the training and other factors. Many groups raise money for training canines, and soldiers often pay a percentage of the full cost.

Rob Cain, public-affairs chief for the Army Surgeon General's Office, said the Army supports using service dogs as a way of treating soldiers with PTSD, but the canines must be trained only through an organization accredited by Assistance Dogs International.

If the canine is not from an ADI organization, the VA does not reimburse the soldier for costs associated with the dog's veterinary care and equipment.

ADI doesn't have groups in 18 states, and service-dog advocates such as Kandoll and others not accredited by that organization say soldiers are placed on long waiting lists keeping them from reaching the help they need.

Because of the Army's policy, Aragon is responsible for all of Zoey's health-care costs. Even so, Kandoll said uniting Aragon with Zoey was the first step in the soldier's recovery.

"Picking the right dog that cares about its owner is a huge accomplishment," Kandoll said. "It makes me feel great I was able to save two lives."

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