TAMPA, Fla. – There’s nothing like bonding with man’s best friend. But two special dog breeds work wonders with injured veterans returning home with PTSD or mobility issues.
These service animals can make our American heroes feel less alone and give them the independence they deserve.
“Look out the window to help everyone else and look in the mirror to help myself,” explains Air Force veteran Ryan Bodge.
He spent 27 years in the security forces and was deployed eight times to Iraq and Afghanistan. During one of those tours, Bodge suffered brain damage from an explosion and did not realize the extent of the damage.
But after years of suffering from migraines, dizziness and trauma, he was finally ready to retire, and a service dog came highly recommended.
“You’ve got to get over the fact that you’re going to be walking around with this beautiful animal that’s going to say, ‘I’ve got something wrong, haven’t I?’ But if it means getting a better place in life, who cares what people think?” Bodge said emphatically.
Bodge was linked to Bradley, who helps him in various aspects of his life.
“He’s especially a help to me when it comes to the PTSD,” Bodge said.
This emotional support is demonstrated in several ways.
Bradley does deep pressure therapy. So when I’m laying on the floor or sitting on the floor, I just want a break. Bradley will come, and he will be on my lap, and he will put pressure on my lap. It’s a kind of comfort blanket,” Bodge explains.
Bradley can also assist with mobility assignments.
“I can ask Bradley to pick up certain things like keys, cell phone, remote. He can also fetch water with Bradley. Go to a refrigerator, get water out, bring it to you, go back and close the refrigerator,” Bodge said.
Bodge received Bradley thanks to Valor Service Dogs.
“So to learn it like she did, you just take a treat, lure them under there, and then we want her to stay in that position until Kaileanna frees her from that position. So you have a whole meal in a restaurant and they stay just under the table,” explains Founder and Executive Director Carol Lansford.
She started the nonprofit after her husband, Justin, suffered a devastating injury while serving in Afghanistan.
He was injured in an IED blast. He was a gunman on top of a truck, and the IED blew under his truck and cut him in half. And he got stuck under the truck, and it broke his leg, broke his back, he lost his spleen, tore both lungs. I think he’s had over 40 surgeries,” Lansford explained.
Justin lost his leg in that blast, and while recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Lansford decided to become certified in training service animals. In 2015, she opened Valor Service Dogs.
“We now have 15 dogs in training, and it takes about two years per dog. We get the dogs donated for the most part from other service dog organizations, other breeding programs. And if they have surplus dogs, they donate them to our program,” she said.
In order to receive a service dog, you must meet certain qualifications.
“Our entry requirements are post 9/11 combat injuries for PTSD. If it is a mobility dog, it could be injured or in a training simulation. They have to retire or retire, so they can no longer be used,” Lansford explains.
Each Labrador or Golden Retriever learns about 60 commands and is matched specifically to a veteran, both in size and in distress, whether it’s emotional support due to PTSD or mobility support due to an injury.
“It’s such a rewarding opportunity,” says Kaileanna Albright, who helps train the dogs for Valor and tries to integrate the animals into every part of her life.
She showed that one of the dogs she trains, Daisey, was able to grab her leash and take it to Albright. Daisey also learned basic commands by using only her nose to press an elevator button in the future or a handicap door opener for a veteran in need.
Daisey also watches for signs of trauma or fear, such as when a veteran puts his face in his hands. She learns to recognize and interrupt that stress. That way, the handler has to focus on the dog and helps distract or calm the veteran at that moment.
Despite all the ways Bradley helps Bodge physically, he said emotionally, it has been life-changing.
Bradley forced me to slow down. I mean, I see colors that I haven’t seen in a while. I’ve seen things I haven’t seen in a while, like “Hey, how long has that bush been there?” People say, ‘It’s been more than 10 years.’ So he’s changed my life a lot, and he continues to change my life,” Bodge said with a smile.
Bodge believed in the miracle of service dogs. Carol helped him find funding to get certified to become a trainer. Now Bodge is helping Valor Service Dogs expand by becoming the program manager of the South Georgia region and training six dogs in Valdosta.
Valor relies entirely on donations, and if you’d like to learn more about their program, click here.