Every day, about 20 military veterans in the United States die by suicide — more than are lost daily in combat. Veterans account for 18 percent of all suicide deaths in America. The veteran population of approximately 2.4 million is expected to surge in the next five years with another 1 million active and reserve members of the U.S. armed forces returning to civilian life. Many of these veterans develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and struggle reintegrating into life’s daily routine. About 300,000 U.S. veterans are currently diagnosed with PTSD or major depression.
To address this widespread issue, “Canines Providing Assistance to Wounded Warriors” (C-P.A.W.W.), is investigating how to reduce the risk factors for suicide and focuses on biological and psychosocial stress indicators in the military veteran population. Florida Atlantic University’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing is now home to C-P.A.W.W., which is expanding the college’s efforts to investigate protective factors for suicide in the military population and improve the understanding of palliative effects of animal-assisted interventions.
“C-P.A.W.W. is providing an invaluable service to our veterans locally and nationally, and we are very excited to have this important initiative housed in the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing,” said Marlaine Smith, Ph.D., dean of FAU’s College of Nursing. “Our faculty, students and staff are known for their dedication to caring in nursing as well as expanding scientific knowledge, and C-P.A.W.W. is a great representation of the quality of work that is taking place within our college.”
C-P.A.W.W. provides rigorous empirical evidence demonstrating the lifesaving impact canines may have on the underserved veteran population. Research from this initiative has demonstrated that veterans and active duty military are showing stress reduction when interacting with a canine such as a service dog, therapy dog, companion animal, or personal pet.
“C-P.A.W.W. was created in response to the lack of vital information regarding the healing capacities of the human-animal interaction in military veterans,” said Cheryl A. Krause-Parello, Ph.D., R.N., founder and director of C-P.A.W.W., a professor in the College of Nursing, and a faculty fellow in FAU’s Institute for Healthy Aging and Lifespan Studies (I-HeAL). “Service dogs are specially trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities, enabling them to live independently. They can be trained to sense a veteran’s anxiety, can serve as a calming influence through deep pressure therapy, and help a veteran feel safer in a crowded public area. Many veterans with a service dog can positively reintegrate into civilian life and reestablish a sense of independence.”
Training a service dog can take up to two years and cost up to $30,000. However, service dogs often are not considered a reimbursable medical expense for veterans with invisible wounds such as PTSD and many of them go without the assistance they need. One of Krause-Parello’s prospective goals is to provide the evidence to support changes in public policy so that service dogs will be covered as a reimbursable medical expense for those recovering from a service connected condition such as PTSD.
Some veterans adapt to civilian life more quickly, and the unconditional love and emotional support from âman’s best friend” makes all the difference. Austin Capers, who served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army from 2004 to 2009 during Operation Iraqui Freedom, now manages global sales and marketing for a small scientific company in West Palm Beach. Unlike many veterans, his transition from military to civilian life was relatively smooth. He credits his supportive family and faithful companion Rita, a 9-year-old boxer-mix who entered his life serendiptiously, for playing an important role in his homecoming. While on active duty in Virginia, Capers found her abandonded in the woods when she was about 3 months old. Although Rita is not a trained service dog, Capers knows firsthand how strong the human-canine bond can be.
“There’s an inexplicable bond between dogs and humans that allows us to feel better emotionally,” said Capers, who is helping Krause-Parello with C-P.A.W.W.’s mission. “Whether it’s a service dog or just a member of the family, dogs provide comfort, alleviate stress and make veterans feel calmer. The unfortunate truth is that 20 veterans a day commit suicide and we know that we can make a difference in their lives with service and companion canines.”
Other members of the C-P.A.W.W. team are Allison Boyrer, community liaison coordinator; Marla Mygatt, research assistant; Katalien Bieniek, undergraduate research assistant; and Lyndon Villone, a military veteran consultant who served as an amphibious assault vehicle crew chief in the U.S. Marine Corps. Villone, now a professional dog trainer, is commited to serving other veterans after the painful experience of losing six of his Marines to suicide post-deployment.
“My own assistance dog, Ice, was trained to brace my vertigo spells and apply deep-pressure touch to mitigate my post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms,” said Villone. “My experience with Ice helped me to recognize the depth of my passion for the human-animal bond and the prominent role that they play in the lives of veterans across America.”
Krause-Parello’s prior work demonstrated that pet attachment mediated the effect of loneliness on aspects of well-being. Over the past several years, she has expanded her research and has begun examining the relationship between human-animal interaction and stress biomarkers in vulnerable populations, including military veterans and children of sexual abuse. The long-term goal of her research is to implement effective interventions to modulate the long-term effects of PTSD on returning active duty military and veterans and to identify additional populations where this intervention will be effective.
“Our troops have already sacrificed so much,” said Krause-Parello. “It’s time to give back and make sure our veterans have the best restorative care to allow them to thrive at home, and C-P.A.W.W. is doing just that.”
For more information about C-P.A.W.W. or to get involved, contact Krause-Parello at email@example.com or visit nursing.fau.edu/cpaww.
FAU’s College of Nursing is internationally known for its commitment to nursing as a discipline focused on nurturing the wholeness of persons and the environment through Caring. The College advances Caring knowledge through education, practice, research and scholarship to transform care locally, nationally and globally. Currently, the College of Nursing offers bachelor’s, master’s, DNP and Ph.D. degree programs with approximately 1,300 nursing students enrolled in its programs. For more information, visit www.nursing.fau.edu.