“We are dedicated to improving the lives of America’s Warriors facing mobility challenges and trauma related conditions such as PTSD and TBI by providing the highest quality service dogs and canine assisted therapeutic programs.” So says the mission statement of Paws for Purple Hearts, a truly unique Rohnert Park-based organization that is the world’s only service dog organization for wounded service members and veterans.
Paws for Purple Hearts is an off-shoot of the renowned Bergin University of Canine Studies which was founded by Dr. Bonnie Bergin, canine researcher and inventor of the service dog concept. In the early 2000s the organization had been involved in a program teaching youth at the Los Guilicos Juvenile Hall to train service dogs. The program acted as a form of therapy to the troubled youth, as well as gave them an activity that instilled in them a sense of pride and self-respect. The program lasted several years until Los Guilicos changed their procedures and no longer offered this service as part of their operations.
“One of my staff had seen a newscast about returning veterans with PTSD,” says Bonnie Bergin, CEO of Paws for Purple Hearts. “She told me about it and said ‘we should do a program like what we do with the kids in juvenile hall with this population.’ I just knew immediately that this was the right thing to do and that we should do it. It was so obvious.”
With her staff on board with the idea, they put a program together and by 2006 Paws for Purple Hearts was born. They initially started working with the Menlo Park Veterans Administration Medical Center, driving dogs to this location every day to work with hospitalized veterans with severe PTSD. The veterans would be charged with working with the dogs, provided by Bergin University, to train them to become service dogs to other veterans and thereby healing themselves in the process.
“The clinical staff could see incredible things happen,” says Bergin. “We kept the dogs with us and kept driving the dogs down from Sonoma County. But as the veterans got better and better at training, we were able to leave them with the veterans overnight. Several things happened. For one thing, the clinical staff noticed it reduced their need for medication. The other thing that would happen is that when some of these guys would get off for the weekend and be able to go home and spend it with their family, we were getting calls from the family saying ‘oh my gosh you’re bringing my husband or wife or kids back again.’ They were starting to see the person they knew before the war.”
Another benefit for the veterans that could keep the dogs overnight is that it greatly improved their sleeping. Veterans dealing with PTSD often suffer from an inability to sleep. In the hospital nurses check on them every half hour to see if they are sleeping.
“When the veterans were good enough at dog training and dog handling and we could leave the dogs with them overnight, the nurse would go in and they would be asleep,” says Bergin. “We started to ask them why – what about it made it possible for them. And they said ‘the dog has my back.’ They were feeling very secure and therefore able to sleep.”
Because the vets would train the dogs to ultimately be placed with other veterans, they also gained a sense of purpose and knew they would ultimately be helping another person in their same situation. It brought back a sense of community for them.
Today, the program has grown to five centers around the United States in order to serve veterans in every region of the country, including Washington, DC; San Antonio, Texas; Fairbanks, Alaska; Richmond, Virginia and San Diego, California. Thousands of veterans are now helped through the program, but there remains a great need. Since 9/11, about 2.7 million American men and women have served our country in the military and almost half have returned with a service-related disability. A large portion of this group has some level of post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, or other serious mental condition. Most of the individuals served through Paws for Purple Hearts are veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, but some even fought in the Vietnam and Korean wars, where disorders like PTSD were not yet fully understood or accepted.
“The magic that happens between humans and dogs – it’s astounding,” says Bergin. “The reason the dogs make such a difference is because they don’t talk to these people verbally. They don’t go into detail about any kind of thing that disrupts the relationship. They are just loving and these veterans need that love and they need it unconditionally. When the dogs are providing that it gives them a chance to feel secure again. They feel like themselves again and basically get back in touch with other people that they’ve loved that they’ve withdrawn from.”