The unique nonprofit helps service members while saving animals.

By Monica Weymouth
October 01, 2018
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Clarissa Black knew Bear was special. With a goofy grin and happy-go-lucky spirit, her Malamute mix always had a way with people-in fact, she had trained him to be a therapy dog.

But it wasn't until she saw Bear interacting with veterans and wounded soldiers that she realized how truly powerful his presence could be.

"The reaction was so positive," says Black, a trainer who was volunteering at her local VA hospital in Long Beach, California. "Everyone was laughing and smiling, joking that they wanted to take Bear home with them."

And so she thought, why not? If a short visit with a dog could make that much of a difference, what about a full-time companion? Bear, of course, was spoken for, but plenty of other dogs and cats needed loving homes.

Pets for Vets was born that day. With a $3,000 loan from her parents, Black-who holds a bachelor's degree in animal science from Cornell as well as a Master's in anthrozoology from Canisius College-launched the nonprofit as a "matchmaking service" for veterans and shelter animals. What began in 2009 as a small-scale local endeavor now has 30 chapters and counting across the United States.

The program is unique in its approach, using a philosophy known as "Super Bond" to ensure a successful match. After a lengthy interview with the veteran, Pets for Vets volunteers go about finding the individual's perfect pet at area shelters. Most requests are for dogs, but they also occasionally match cats, and have even placed a rabbit.

"We eliminate the stress of getting a new pet," says Black. "We really get to know our veterans and what they're looking for in a pet. What kind of lifestyle do they lead? What is it that they expect from a pet? How do they express joy and love? Then, we go ask the same thing from the pet."

After pets are selected, they go to the homes of professional Pets for Vets trainers, where they learn basic obedience skills, good pet manners, and other behaviors that may be helpful to veterans, such as being comfortable around wheelchairs or recognizing signs of panic or anxiety. Then, once the animal goes home, Pets for Vets provides a lifetime of guidance and support to ensure a successful placement.

[LEARN: Everything You Need to Know Before Brining Home a Pup]

Any veteran who may benefit from a pet is encouraged to apply, but many of the service members Black and her team assist suffer from PTSD. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 30 percent of Vietnam Veterans and up to 20 percent of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan experience PTSD over the course of a lifetime.

While PTSD requires treatment by medical professionals, studies have shown that dogs can be effective in easing some of its debilitating symptoms. A 2018 study led by researchers at Purdue University found that veterans suffering from PTSD experienced better mental health and wellbeing if they had dogs. These veterans had lower levels of depression, higher levels of life satisfaction, and a greater ability to participate in social activities.

Black has witnessed firsthand how healing a dog can be.

"I had a veteran tell me that the first night he met his dog, he opened up and told the dog everything-things he wasn't able to talk to his family or therapist about," she says. "Another told me that since getting his dog, he's spoken with more people than he has since returning home. That's the great thing about dogs-they can act as a connection, as a bridge to other people, and that is so life-affirming."

As Pets for Vets continues to grow, Black looks forward to helping more veterans and shelter animals find each other. "This began as a way to say ‘thank you' to our veterans," says Black. "Watching these bonds form has been so incredibly rewarding."

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