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Veterans rediscovering life with help from service dogs

Scappoose dog trainer volunteers to improve the lives of returning veterans


Photo Credit: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Teresa Malarkey of Scappoose interacts with Hero, a service dog in training, at the Scappoose Library. Malarkey is a volunteer dog trainer with PAVE, a nonprofit organization that pairs service dogs with people living with PTSD.Ten years ago, Patrick Demont was overweight, over-medicated and overwhelmed. The Army veteran was still recovering from a traumatic brain injury he sustained in 2003 during his service. Diagnosed with TBI and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Demont eventually got to be 365 pounds and says he rarely left the house.

“I was really agoraphobic, I couldn't drive,” Demont said. “There was a lot of suicide contemplation … It was really bad. I was on lots of medication at once. I weened off it slowly because of all the side effects.”

He's gotten help through the Veterans Administration and improved his condition, but a recent two-week trip to Oregon signaled what could be the most promising phase in Demont's PTSD treatment.

Through his psychiatrist, Demont was referred to Paws Assisting Veterans, an Oregon-based nonprofit organization that trains dogs to assist people with PTSD. The organization was founded by Michelle Nelson, a military mom and dog trainer who says she was compelled to use her skills to help the nation's veterans and others with PTSD.

“My son is serving in the Navy and through that the great need for service dogs for veterans ... was really put in the foreground,” Nelson said.

PTSD has become more pervasive in the wake of foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The VA estimates 11-20 percent of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have developed PTSD and 30 percent of those who served in Vietnam suffer from the condition. Additionally, about 23 percent of women who use the VA reported some form of sexual trauma endured while serving.

Over the past decade, the nation has also seen a sharp spike in veteran suicides.

In 2013, the Department of Defense calculated a suicide rate of 18.7 percent among active service members.

That number doesn't reflect vets like Demont, who struggle with the aftermath of war long after active duty.

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF PATRICK DEMONT - Patrick Demont and his new companion Tolkien stop for a photo together at Mount Rushmore. Demont said he has already noticed a difference in his demeanor since he got Tolkien.Demont drove more than 3,000 miles from his home in Cape Cod, Mass., to PAVE headquarters, to meet and train with a black labrador retriever named Tolkien.

The Army vet didn't drive across the country just for a new pet. He made the trek for a new life.

Two and a half weeks later, Demont says he's already noticed perceptible changes in himself.

“I feel like already it's kind of taken me out of my shell,” he said. “It's just kind of made me feel more interested in doing things. Before, when I drove out here, it was much more linear. I drove for 22 hours, not really sleeping, not really stopping anywhere. But on the way back, I stopped at various landmarks across the country, including Mt. Rushmore.”

PAVE has been successfully carrying out its mission of helping vets live more productive, comfortable lives thanks to trainers like Teresa Malarkey of Scappoose. Malarkey is a veterinary technician who also trains dogs professionally. She says she volunteers her time with PAVE because she believes in its mission and purpose.

“I like seeing the transformation,” she said. “I like seeing a dog go with someone who needs them in their life.”

Malarkey says dogs make great service animals because they're intuitive. “We train them to wake their owners from nightmares, by nudging or stepping on a foot. They can sense the change in chemistry and help diffuse nervousness. They also help keep people from invading a person with PTSD's comfortable space.”

Malarkey isn't the only one who sees the potential for dogs to help humans heal.

Kaiser Permanente Northwest's Center for Health Research is currently partnering with the PAVE to study the impacts of service dogs on people with PTSD.

“There continue to be lots of anecdotal reports about how service dogs actually help veterans with these problems,” Carla Green, senior investigator with the health foundation, said Tuesday. “For people who do not want to take medications, they're truly an alternative.”

Green said the work being done now is an initial study, but if the results indicate a positive correlation, a larger scale clinical trial could follow. Once agencies like the VA have solid evidence of service dogs being helpful to PTSD patients, it could open the door for more assistance.

Nelson said she's seen the results in the clients she's worked with.

“I have witnessed veterans who could not leave their home without a family member being able to go to a crowded store on their own as long as they had their service dog with them,” she said.

If Demont's road trip back home is any indication, his outcome will be no different.