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San Diego Canine Assisted Therapy Program continues to grow at Long Beach VA

 In PPH San Diego, Service Dog Training

Twice a month, two Southern California-based Paws for Purple Hearts instructors and  two or three puppy service dogs in training make a scenic trip northwards up the sunny California coast.

They are on an important mission; to provide life-changing therapy to Veterans in partnership with the VA Long Beach Healthcare System just outside of Los Angeles.  Paws for Purple Hearts developed an innovative therapeutic method, referred to by its long-hand form in technical circles as “Service Dog Training Canine Assisted Therapy.”  It helps reduce the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI).  During each session, the gentle and caring puppies and dogs nudge their Veteran friends back on track towards recovery, a better home and professional life, and full integration into society.

Therapy sessions are highly structured in order to maximize effectiveness.  Each session starts with dog petting and grooming, followed by a short lecture and discussion about different progressively more complex dog training concepts and related principles.  The Veterans then practice the commands they learned with the service dogs in training, making sure to use lots of treats and a positive attitude. Last but not least, the dogs get to take off their “service dog in training” vests and play with each other and the participants to unwind a bit after training.

The good news is spreading.

The ground-breaking Paws for Purple Hearts program has grown at Long Beach since its inception there in early 2017.  Participation and requests to join in the therapy have increased remarkably as more patients and caregivers come to recognize its effectiveness.  The success of the Long Beach program has helped build awareness beyond Southern California as well.  VA teams around the country are inquiring about the Paws for Purple Hearts method and its effectiveness in helping Veterans with PTSD and TBI live better lives.  And we are adding new locations all the time.  Check out Paws for Purple Hearts locations here.

On a fieldtrip--service dog in training
Service Dog in Trainig Oscar on a fieldtrip

Most participants stick with the program.  Almost all have been attending since the very first session.  They continue with the program because they feel the beneficial effects of the therapy directly.  They also are motivated because they know that the dogs they help care for and train will be placed with other Warriors; those with mobility challenges, PTSD and/or TBI.  The Warrior ethos is alive and well among these heroes who live the motto “Warriors Helping Warriors” each time they join in a session.

One participant shared her thoughts about what the program means to her:

“I have had the honor of being one of the first Veterans chosen to work with the Paws for Purple Hearts program here at the Long Beach VAMC from the very beginning.  This was going to be a venture that would benefit my own recovery while giving me an opportunity to help others at the same time. An unimaginable win-win situation for my brothers and sisters in arms.  Nothing could make me more proud.

One morning, after only a few weeks of working with (service dogs in training) Val and Meda, I came to class feeling a bit depressed.  As soon as I sat down, both Val and Meda came up to me and let me know they sensed my distress and they comforted me.”

Veteran Tim, plays tug with 1 year old Ralph after a successful therapy session.
Veteran Tim, plays tug with 1 year old Ralph after a successful therapy session.

The Paws for Purple Hearts canine assisted therapy program is loved by staff members, participants, instructors, and passersby alike, judging from the constant praise the team receives.  All who encounter the program seem to get real joy out of seeing the dogs running and playing with the Veterans.  Paws for Purple Hearts is grateful for the powerful partnership with VA Long Beach Healthcare System. We are working to grow this and other programs around the country with the support of our generous donors and volunteers to help an ever-greater number of Veterans complete the long journey home.

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