“Military City USA” is gaining a new therapeutic resource for active duty military personnel and veterans.

Paws for Purple Hearts (PPH) will be training service dogs for military members and veterans at its new facility at Port San Antonio. The nonprofit organization offers the first program of its kind for veterans and active-duty military service members.

PPH helps injured veterans and active-duty troops in two different ways. Veterans and active-duty members suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and/or military sexual trauma (MST) assist the program’s trainers in training Labradors and golden retrievers for the first two years of their lives. Once trained as service dogs and companions, the dogs are given to veterans who are impaired.

In order to qualify for the training program, the person must be a military service member and have PTSD, TBI, or MST. To receive a service dog free of charge, a veteran must have mobility challenges, as documented by a doctor or Veterans Affairs (VA).

After completing the application and interview and submitting medical paperwork for the disability, the veteran is assigned a fully trained service dog once one becomes available. Typically, the veteran would travel to the closest PPH facility to spend two weeks on site training with the new dog in a simulated home environment.

Two program instructors, Lindsey Velasco and Martin Bergamaschi, have been working locally since June 2016 with Annie and Valley, the first two dogs in the San Antonio program. With two locations in California, one in Virginia, and one in Alaska, PPH selected San Antonio because of the “large footprint of the local VA, the military bases, overall military population, number of veterans, and community engagement with the military,” Velasco said.

When finished, the program’s facility at Port San Antonio will not look like most nonprofit office spaces. The space will provide trainers two large indoor training areas. One will be a classroom and training space for veterans and their families, who with their dogs can attend free basic canine obedience classes.

“Veterans will get puppies thinking it will help reduce stress, but the dog needs training,” Velasco said. “For the dog, proper behavior in public and a well-behaved dog at home is a desired outcome and why we offer the free basic obedience training to veterans.”

The second training area will be for the PPH dogs’ adult and puppy training. The facility houses the puppies indoors until they get their vaccinations and can interact with other people and dogs. Puppies start training as early as 5 weeks old, with volunteer “puppy petters” helping them become socialized as they play.

Over the next 18 to 24 months, the military service members work with PPH program instructors to train the dogs. Adjacent to the building outside is a large grassy area for dog agility training.

“Agility training helps the dogs bond with the trainers,” Velasco said. “The obstacle course is more exciting for both the volunteer trainers and the dogs, plus PTSD veterans are familiar with obstacle course training.”

Jim Wolfe is a retired U.S. Department of Defense employee who regularly takes his dog Tess to Audie Murphy Memorial VA Hospital, Fisher House on Fort Sam Houston, and various retirement nursing homes to visit patients and residents. He has seen how interacting with dogs can benefit wounded warriors.

Visiting a veteran recently who had third-degree burns covering 90% of his body, Tess put her paws on his wheelchair and licked his face.

“Since his face had burned off, it was a touching moment that made the veteran cry,” Wolfe said. “The veteran said, ‘That was the first time anyone has kissed me since I was wounded.’

“Dogs have a psychological connection with people that we only remotely understand. They can sense when we’re sad or hurt, and [if] well-trained, they will respond to this in anyone.”

Annie rests in between commands.
Annie rests in between commands. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Paws for Purple Hearts started in 2006 as a research program at Bergin University of Canine Studies in conjunction with the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System in Palo Alto, Calif. PPH has since evolved into a separate nonprofit organization, its COO Dave Platte stated in an email.

Founded and led by Dr. Bonnie Bergin, a canine researcher and creator of the service dog concept, Bergin University is the only university in the world that focuses on teaching and researching ways dogs help people. Although Paws for Purple Hearts is now separate from the university, Bergin continues her involvement as a PPH board member.

Paws for Purple Hearts only hires trainers who have completed the Bergin University degree program, which emphasizes positive reinforcement and behavioral and psychological methods to train dogs for service.

What also differentiates PPH from other canine service dog programs such as the San Antonio-based Guide Dogs of Texas, which provides guide dogs for the sight-impaired, and other organizations offering service dogs to veterans is that PPH teaches veterans and military members to train the dogs.

The training process in itself impacts the veterans and active-duty members who volunteer to train the dogs by providing the therapeutic benefit of working with animals. According to the National Center for PTSD, a VA center dedicated to research and education on trauma and PTSD, owning a dog can lift a person’s mood and help the person feel less stressed. Dogs also help people feel better by providing companionship.

One in five service members who have deployed suffer from PTSD, according to a 2008 Rand Corporation study.

“Not every dog has the temperament to be a guide dog, so some don’t go on to ‘graduate’ and become guide dogs,” Velasco said. “In our program every dog is 100% successful. Even if they [do not become a service dog and thus] are not placed with a veteran, they helped a veteran dealing with serious issues who trained them and received canine therapeutic benefits as a result.”

Annie wears a Paws for Purple Hearts In Training vest.
Annie wears a Paws for Purple Hearts In Training vest. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A vet office also will be part of the new San Antonio facility, with a vet checking on the puppies and dogs there.

“Ideally, we’d like to find a local vet who’s interested in donating time and services for checking on our puppies and dogs in the program,” Bergamaschi said. “This model is already in use at Bergin University, so we hope to bring that practice to the San Antonio location.”

The first dog to graduate in San Antonio will be Annie, who will be placed this fall with a veteran living in Alaska. In the meantime, PPH offers families the opportunity to foster dogs in training on the weekends, helping the dog become socialized and experience different settings.

The opening for the new PPH facility is Sept. 20, and it will be open to the public. Paws for Purple Hearts is accepting applications for trainers, puppy petters, and weekend hosting, as well as for obtaining a service dog. It also is accepting donations for its program and the facility and has a wish list on Amazon.

Iris Gonzalez

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science, and veteran affairs. She won the Texas Veterans Commission Media Excellence Awards for her 2016 Veterans Day story "Life as a Veteran: What Veterans...