More than a quarter of men and women who have served in the armed forces find it difficult to return to civilian life, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. In these cases, emotional support and trained service animals can provide wellness and healing for veterans struggling with mental health or physical disabilities.
Canine Companions LTD. is a nonprofit organization that connects specialized dogs with veterans in need. The program operates out of the eighth floor of the Dream Center, a faith-based charitable organization in Silver Lake, to aid returning servicemen and women as they transition back into civilian life.
According to the organization's website, the program's mission is to provide veterans with a marketable skill so that they can train dogs to provide emotional, mental and physical support to future veteran owners.
"Just seeing them have a sense of belonging with these dogs, and with the people who have helped them get to that point, it just creates a whole new type of community," said Natasha Smith, the executive director of Canine Companions LTD.
Anthony Worley, the Dream Center veterans program director, said canines can be trained to provide services to veterans in wheelchairs and those with other physical disabilities. He added that dogs can be taught to perform actions such as opening doors and stopping at crosswalks.
"There may be many different issues that haven't been diagnosed or dealt with specifically, and a companion animal can help in all those different types of ways: emotionally; psychologically; physically; whatever the case may be," Worley said.
Faith, a German shepherd, was donated to Worley and the Dream Center following a nonprofit partnership with Canine Companions LTD. earlier this year. Worley said his connection with Faith made him realize how much canines can change or benefit a veteran's life.
"I'm learning a new skill set by actually helping to train the animal as well. And just having that animal by your side day and night, it's a loving relationship. It's give and take, but at the same time, it's very rewarding," Worley said.
Walter Hart Jr., the president of Canine Companions LTD., said he plans to expand the organization across the nation after receiving positive feedback from supporters and witnessing the program's successes.
"The gratifying experience I've had is seeing Faith come here as a puppy and seeing her grow and also seeing Anthony grow with her, seeing him go through certain things, and seeing how (the program) actually worked," Hart said.
Singer Maty Noyes is among the organization's many supporters. She said when she heard about the canine program to aid veterans, she immediately wanted to help by spreading the word.
"I have a really big heart for veterans and animals. I have a service dog myself, and I know how much he has helped me. I strongly believe that if you have a platform, you should always use it for the good. We have such big dreams with Canine Companions," Noyes said.
Canine Companions LTD. is also exploring the possibility of introducing service animals to the prison system to improve the transition of ex-convicts back into society. Visit their website for more information.