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For veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, everyday life can be derailed by anxiety, flashbacks, sensory overload and depression.
Enter “the most holistic medicine you can have”: service dogs. Service dogs trained for handlers with PTSD can steady veterans experiencing dizziness or anxiety, wake them from night terrors and offer comfort in public places. Some can even dial 911.
We’ll learn more about a training program for service dogs run out of the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland, and hear from veterans who’ve gotten help from their four-legged friends.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Rachel Chason Washington Post Reporter; @Rachel_Chason
- Kerri Rodriguez Graduate Researcher at Purdue University's Organization for Human-Animal Interaction Research and Education; @OHAIRElab
- Al Moore Marine Corps Veteran
- Mark Vernarelli Communications and Outreach Officer, Maryland Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. For veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, everyday life can be derailed by anxiety, flashbacks, sensory overload and depression. Enter the most holistic medicine you can have: service dogs. Service dogs trained for handlers with PTSD can steady veterans experiencing dizziness or anxiety, wake them from night terrors, and offer comfort in public places. Some can even dial 911. Joining me to discuss this in studio is Rachel Chason. She's a reporter with the Washington Post. Rachel, thank you for joining us.
RACHEL CHASONOf course. Thank you.
NNAMDIAl Moore is a retired Marine. His service dog's name is Kevin. Al Moore, thank you for joining us.
AL MOOREYou're welcome. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd hi to you, Kevin. Joining us from studios at Purdue University is Kerri Rodriguez. Kerri Rodriguez is a graduate researcher with Purdue University's Organization for Human-Animal Interaction Research and Education. Kerri Rodriguez, thank you for joining us.
KERRI RODRIGUEZThank you for having me.
NNAMDIRachel, you wrote a story for the Washington Post about one program for training service dogs for veterans that is run out of Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland. What can you tell us about that program?
CHASONYeah, absolutely. So, this is a program run by a nonprofit called America's Vet Dogs, in which prisoners train puppies who then go on to be paired with veterans who are struggling with PTSD. The program started in 2012, because officials at Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services were looking at ways to focus on restorative justice programs. And they figured out this is a great way to do just that. Of the six states that has such training programs, Maryland has successfully trained the most dogs.
CHASONFifty-nine in total, and 23 at the facility in Cumberland where I was.
NNAMDIWow. Kerri Rodriguez, you are a graduate researcher, as I mentioned, at Purdue University. You're studying the effects that animals have on human wellbeing. What have you and your fellow researchers uncovered about the effectiveness of service dogs for veterans suffering from PTSD?
RODRIGUEZYeah, our first study actually found that service dogs were associated with not only less PTSD symptoms, but also less depression and less anger. We also found that those with a service dog were more satisfied with their lives. They were less socially isolated and getting out of the house more.
NNAMDIWhat exactly is it that service dogs do that medications or other treatments can't or don't?
RODRIGUEZYeah, that was one of our questions. We really want to put empirical science behind seeing if a service dog does work, and if so, how. And so what we did was actually collected saliva samples from veterans to look at their stress hormones. So, the stress hormone called cortisol. And we found that those with the service dogs did have significantly different stress profiles than those without a service dog. So, what we think is happening is that there's a physiological effect of calming the veteran down when the service dog is performing their tasks.
NNAMDIAl Moore, you're a Marine Corps veteran. Tell us about Kevin, who is also here with us in studio. What has this dog meant for you?
MOOREHe's been life-changing. Everything that Kerri just outlined is exactly what I was going through. I totally withdrew from, not only life, even my family. And, getting Kevin, I've calmed down. I've started coming out a little bit more out of the house, and he's reintegrated me in many, many ways.
NNAMDIHow long have you had Kevin, and what was your life like before you got a service dog?
MOOREI've had Kevin for a year and a half. And before that, whenever we'd get invitations, even to friends' houses who I've known for years and years, I usually declined. I'd probably stay home, and my wife and my kids would go. But I'd just stay by myself.
NNAMDIYou just wanted to be by yourself all the time.
MOOREMm-hmm, pretty much.
NNAMDIWhat are some of the things that Kevin does to help you?
MOOREHe wakes me up from nightmares, night terrors. There's a strap that cinches down on the blankets, and when I start thrashing and making noise, he grabs that pull strap and he pulls my blankets off -- something he wasn't really trained to do at school, then comes back and he sticks his nose in my face after that. So, it's pretty cool to wake up to a wagging dog instead of just into the middle of a nightmare.
MOOREHe turns on the lights at night in the house, so that I don't kind of freak out if I go into a dark place. I get dizzy sometimes, and he'll keep me steady on the stairs. He'll pick things up and bring them back to me, open and close doors.
NNAMDIWell, if he wasn't trained to do it, how does he know when you're having nightmares? You start thrashing around in your sleep?
MOOREMm-hmm, mm-hmm. Yeah, it's from the movement and the noise. He was trained -- you can see the videos on America's Vet Dogs website, and you can see the videos of how that works.
NNAMDIKerri Rodriguez, you are about two years into your clinical trial. How intensive is the training that these dogs go through?
RODRIGUEZQuite a bit intensive, and one of the big questions is, of course, to look at how this training occurs and what should be trained for. But what we've found so far is that these highly trained service dogs are making a difference, that they are quite different from a pet dog.
NNAMDIHow exactly do veterans benefit from the interactions with a service dog?
RODRIGUEZSo, one of the most important things, of course, is that calming agent. So, when a veteran is having a flashback, for example, the dog is right there to provide sort of a distraction, to get them out of whatever's going on inside their head. And we know that is very important, just as was just described with Kevin, not only during the day, but also at night and nightmares. But the service dog is also going out in public with veterans, which is very meaningful to get them out of the house. Sometimes it'll be going to the grocery store for the first time. And that's really meaningful for a lot of veterans, to be able to participate in social activities with their families.
NNAMDIYou nodded when she was talking about that, Al, and the fact that I know I read where, at one point, it was your wife, Dawn, who had to accompany you wherever you went. Now, it's Kevin who performs the same function. Why is that important to have him with you when you go to the grocery store or when you go to a soccer game?
MOOREWell, I can't speak for everybody, but I think, for me, what happens is, in the military, you're always used to having a battle buddy. And so you always have somebody you feel like who's watching your back, got your six kind of thing. My wife was my caregiver, and has been my sole caregiver until I got Kevin. And so, now, when you start talking about social interactions in public like that, Kevin is -- you know, it's not what he's there for. He's not there as a guard dog, but I feel like somebody is watching and going to alert. And what Kerri said, as far as the tension goes, tension goes down that leash. I can look at Kevin and see how I feel.
NNAMDIWow. He picks it up...
MOOREYeah, he does.
NNAMDI...picks up the vibe, so to speak.
MOOREHe does. He does.
NNAMDIKerri, do animals, dogs in particular, have a therapeutic value, even if they cannot be classified as a service animals?
RODRIGUEZYes. We do know that there are quite a few benefits from just interacting with the dogs. So, research has shown that just petting and talking to a dog can actually lower your blood pressure and lower your heart rate and can significantly alter your stress hormones, cortisol. So, there is a bit happening just with the simple companionship and presence of these dogs, as well, that we can't discount.
NNAMDIKerri, what's the difference between service dogs and emotional support dogs?
RODRIGUEZGreat question. So, service dogs are actually trained for tasks that are directly mitigating a disability. And so, for this case, the disability is PTSD, but can also be for things like vision impairment for guide dogs, or physical impairments for those mobility service dogs. And so, emotional support dogs don't necessarily have that training, but they're still supportive. Whereas service dogs are directly trained for those tasks, like waking up for a nightmare, that are going to be helping that disability.
NNAMDIKerri, can other animals provide similar therapeutic effects?
RODRIGUEZYeah, there is quite a bit of research on how equine-assisted therapy, or horse interaction, can help veterans with PTSD, as well. And so we know that there are several different applications of the human-animal bond with dogs and horses, as well as other types of therapy animals that can really help veterans.
NNAMDIYou say that you take a family-wide approach in this study. What does that mean?
RODRIGUEZWe do. So, we think it's really important to both understand how the service dog is impacting the veteran, but also to understand how the service dog is impacting spouses and significant others. These are dogs that are placed in the home, and so, very often, there's a spouse and children that are also benefitting from the service dog, both directly and indirectly. And so our research not only has veterans participate, we also have their significant others participate in the research, as well, to really understand how the service dogs may be improving overall family functioning.
NNAMDIAl Moore, I want to talk to you about what Kevin has meant for your own family. What effect has it had, having him around?
MOORETremendous. I didn't even realize the abyss that I was going into. And then you look up one day, and I've figuratively put landmines in the living room and eggshells on the floor, as the song says, and then expected my family to deal with that. And I didn't really know where I was and what I was doing. They could see it, but then you deny it yourself -- at least I did. And now, by relaxing, by getting responsibility again, having to take the dog out, having to take him to his vet visits, it forces you to interact with the public. People will stop and want to know about your dog. And it forces you to reintegrate. And, as you reintegrate with the public, you reintegrate with your family, as well.
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, family is so important, that we tend to think about veterans who have PTSD and we think about veterans who are missing in action, veterans who are wounded in action. But you sent us an email this morning about the devastating effects on a family of a veteran who was killed in action...
NNAMDI...and what subsequently happened to that family. It was very moving, and it caused me to think a lot more about the effect that these things have on families. So, I'm really glad that Kevin has been able to help your whole family, not just you, in this situation.
MOOREOh, he's a God-send, yeah.
NNAMDIAll right. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on service animals and veterans. If you have called, stay on the line. If you'd like to call, the number's 800-433-8850. Do you have a service dog? Tell us about your experience, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about service animals and veterans with Rachel Chason, a reporter with the Washington Post. Al Moore is a retired Marine. His service dog's name is Kevin. They both join us in studio. Kerri Rodriguez is a graduate researcher with Purdue University's Organization for Human-Animal Interaction Research and Education. She joins us from studios at Purdue. And joining us now by phone is Mark Vernarelli. Mark works in communications and outreach for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. He brought the vet dogs program to Maryland in 2012. Mark Vernarelli, thank you so much for joining us.
MARK VERNARELLIMy pleasure, sir. Thank you very much for having me on.
NNAMDIAs I said, you brought this program to Maryland in 2012. Why was it important to you to bring this program to Maryland inmates?
VERNARELLIWell, it was a real blessing, I'll tell you. I was working with incarcerated veterans groups throughout the system. We have several prisons that have very strong and active veterans groups. And I was trying to find them some more redeeming activities to do, because once a veteran always a veteran. It doesn't matter that they're incarcerated. A lot of folks really want to pay society back. And, by the grace of God, I was able to find America's Vet Dogs and bring them to Maryland.
VERNARELLIAnd it takes a lot for this to happen. It takes, first of all, a strong correctional administration, a willing correctional staff, excellent inmates and community support. And, thank God, we had all of that come together. And, today, I'm happy to say that we have five prisons training service dogs for veterans like Mr. Moore throughout the state of Maryland.
NNAMDIWell, we know what this program does for veterans, but what does it officer inmates?
VERNARELLII have to tell you, it changes the climate of the entire facility. And when Mr. Moore and his wife and Kevin came back in to Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, it was a high point in the lives of many people at that facility. Because when those dogs walk on the compound, they have an immediate calming effect on the entire facility. The correctional staff appreciate it. The administration appreciates the program.
VERNARELLIAnd, for the inmates, it is paying society back in a most special way. We actually have several incarcerated veterans in the program. We started with incarcerated veterans at one of our prisons in Hagerstown, Maryland, but we do not have only veterans in the program. We have other inmates, as well. But, particularly for veterans, you can't get any better than training a service dog for a fellow veteran. And inmates in general feel as though they are paying society back in a fantastic way by being able to do this. And they've done a phenomenal job.
NNAMDIWere there any logistical hurdles to housing this program at local prisons?
VERNARELLIThere's always a logistical hurdle in prison, but if you have willing staff and great inmates, you can make it work. And the correctional -- I can't speak highly enough of the correctional officers and the correctional case managers, psychology, social work. It was a team effort at all of these prisons.
VERNARELLIAnd we actually had inmates -- the first couple of dogs who came into our Hagerstown facility, inmates actually made their cages. We had correctional enterprises inmates making their cages, making their dog beds. And it was a team effort. We were able to shift some housing around so that the dogs could be staying 24-7, of course, with their handlers, their primary and secondary handler inmates.
VERNARELLIAnd, in one case, we had inmates actually help construct a walking track. And we had a fenced area built at several of the facilities so that there could be an exercise yard for the dogs. So, there's always a logistical issue, but it was something that we were able to overcome, and it's turned out just great.
NNAMDIMark, what's your ultimate goal with this program? Is there a certain number of trained dogs you hope to reach or another benchmark?
VERNARELLIWell, we're thrilled that we've had 59 dogs trained so far, including, as Rachel said, 23 at the prison in Cumberland, Western Correctional Institution. We don't put a number on the dogs, because it's not in our control how many dogs we can get. America's Vet Dogs has shown great confidence in us, and we're so thankful for this partnership, particularly in Cumberland, which is the only maximum security prison in the country to have this program. And yet it's been a wonderful program.
VERNARELLISo, we don't put numbers on what we're looking for, but we would like to expand the program. We would like to expand it to another facility, if we're able to. We have to bear in mind that short-term inmates cannot be involved in a program like this, because it's very important from the training aspect to be able to have the same handler and secondary handler for the entire 12 to 15 months that the dogs are with us. So, we have to have longer-term inmates who are serving sentences that would allow them to be in the program.
VERNARELLISo that, right away, eliminates the local jail that we run, the prerelease facilities where people are coming and going all the time and the real low security facilities where people are going out on jobs and things like that. So, you have to confine it to certain types of prisons where the inmates are going to be there a while, and that's what we're doing. But we are trying to see if there's a way we can expand it to at least one more facility.
NNAMDIWhat other kinds of restorative justice programs are offered?
VERNARELLIWe have a lot of animal-based programs that are really fantastic. Another of our Hagerstown prisons has a rescue dog program through a nonprofit that has actually allowed 180 dogs to be trained and adopted by families. These are dogs that had very little value to some people when they came to us. And the inmates there have trained the dogs. And, of course, it's been as beneficial to the inmates and the correctional staff as it has been to the folks who have gotten the dogs.
VERNARELLIWe have a thoroughbred rescue farm for horses at our prison in Sykesville, Maryland, Carroll County, in the rolling hills out there west of Baltimore, where the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation actually sends us retired race horses that have no so-called value left. And the inmates there learn to become groomsmen, get a certificate in that. And we have at least one who's now working at a race track in that capacity. Tremendous program.
VERNARELLIWe have programs with bees. We have programs with cats. We have other dog programs. And it's just been a phenomenal experience to watch these animals transform the lives and the climate inside the facilities and, of course, their ultimate value to people like Mr. Moore and others who've gotten the service animals.
NNAMDIMark Vernarelli, thank you for joining us.
VERNARELLIMy pleasure, sir. Thank you.
NNAMDIMark Vernarelli works in communications and outreach with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. He brought the vets dog program to Maryland in 2012. Rachel Chason, I'm thinking of the event you covered at the prison for the Washington Post. What was happening that day?
CHASONSo, on that day, it was a celebration of the program's success, and it was also a reunion between the dogs who were trained there, Al's dog Kevin, and then another veteran's dog. Chesty was her name -- or his name, and the prisoners who had trained them. And so it was very cool to get to see those two prisoners reunite with the dogs who they hadn't seen in more than a year-and-a-half.
CHASONAnd one of the best parts is seeing the dogs recognize those prisoners, because these dogs are so well trained and so calm usually. But when they saw the prisoners they were so excited that their tails started wagging so hard, that their whole bodies are kind of shaking. And you can tell that they remembered being there. They remembered growing up there, and they remembered the prisoners who had trained them.
NNAMDIWhat effective does a program like this have on those participating in the training, people like Herbert Wilson Bay?
CHASONSo, one of my favorite parts was listening to Herbert talk with Al afterwards. And Herbert told Al that the program was incredibly therapeutic for him, too. He was 17 years old when he entered the prison system in Maryland. And he's now 44.
NNAMDIHis entire adult life.
CHASONAll of it. And so he told me that he's never had a real job, and he wasn't really able to raise the son who he had because the son was three months old when Herbert was sent to prison. So, raising these dogs is the first real job he's had, and it's given him, he said, a tremendous amount of self confidence and really shaped his identity, so much so that he wears a paw necklace around his neck, always.
NNAMDIAl, what was it like meeting Herbert Wilson Bay, the man who trained your dog?
MOOREVery moving. I was in the Marine Corps for over 30 years, and I've seen a lot of reunions, been a part of a lot of reunions. I don't think I'll ever see one as cool as that.
MOOREYeah, it was wonderful. Yeah.
NNAMDIHow did Kevin respond?
MOOREJust as Rachel said, his whole body was shaking because of his tail. It was really cool to see. It was really cool. My dog left me for a moment, (laugh) and he abandoned me. That's the only time ever, but that was fine, because it was so cool to see.
NNAMDIIt was clear by the time the car got there that he knew where he was.
MOOREIt was. The moment he came out of the back of the car, his feet hit the pavement, his nose was in the air, ears up, tail wagging. He knew exactly where he was.
NNAMDIFascinating story. Here's Beverly in McLean. Beverly, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BEVERLYHi. I don't want to take up time from the vets, but I have a hearing service dog who also helps me with PTSD about driving. And she has her own car seat with a three-way seatbelt so she doesn't go forward. And she just is -- she also has helped me -- some dogs -- she's a Bichon. She's a little white Bichon and people think service dogs have to be Labradors or Shepherds. But she's only 18 pounds, and she has done things like wake me up when an earthquake hit. I was in Reston at the time, and she got me to the front door. She was never trained to do that, but she just knew.
NNAMDIBeverly, what was your problem with driving, and how does she help you with the driving?
BEVERLYWell, she is a partner. There's no other word for it. She's my partner. And so it's not like driving alone. It's totally different for me if I drive alone. My mom was killed in a car accident going into Cleveland Hopkins Airport when I was just 17, and my brother was in the car accident. He lived. My mother was like a cushion for him when he went out the windshield. And she calms me.
NNAMDI(overlapping) So, she helps you with your fear of being in the car by yourself.
BEVERLYYeah, she helps calm me. She keeps me -- you know, I have someone to talk to. It distracts me from the anxiety. I've been rear-ended several times. I had terrible whiplash. I know that's a joke for some people, but it's not for me.
NNAMDINo, it's not.
BEVERLYI still have pain in my neck. And it's just a wonderful thing to have this sentient being, loving, sentient being next to me.
NNAMDII do have to move on, Beverly, but as Al Moore has been saying, it's clear that she's got your back.
NNAMDISo, thank you very much for calling. Here's Ryan in Frederick. Ryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RYANHi, Kojo. I have a quick question about a dog's tendency to pick up on his owner's trauma as a pack leader animal. How do we maintain the mental health of the dog as they live throughout their lives helping their owners, when dogs are taking more of the emotional leadership role?
NNAMDIHow do you maintain Kevin's mental health, so to speak, as Kevin helps to maintain yours? (laugh)
MOOREWe play. We play. You see he's got his Frisbee with him. That's his favorite thing, but he gets to play with the other dogs in the house. We go for walks without the vest. He gets to chase balls and Frisbees, and he gets to frolic when he's off duty. And while he's on duty, he's focused. He knows the difference between having the vest on and having the vest off.
NNAMDIRachel Ann emails us: are inmates traumatized when they have to give up the dog they trained? How do you address that, and what happens to dogs that flunk out of the program?
CHASONThe first part I can tackle, because I asked this, and they said that they are thankfully okay, because very soon after they get another dog. So, Herbert has trained, I believe Kevin was his third dog, and he's now on dog six, so he's done a few. The second part, I am not sure what happens when they flunk out of the program. That might be a question for Mark.
NNAMDIWell, they don't actually flunk out of the program, Ann. They might just not be suited to this kind of occupation. (laugh) It's not like a test they have to pass.
MOOREThere's a waiting list for those dogs.
NNAMDIRachel, for more than 15 years, Veterans Affairs has covered veterinary care for service dogs that assist military men and women with physical disabilities, but has declined to do so for PTSD service dogs, citing a lack of empirical evidence for their therapeutic value. So, why is the VA now conducting a multiyear study on the topic?
CHASONI think a big part of that is that the number of nonprofits who are training these service dogs for PTSD symptoms has really increased in recent years. And as demand has grown, the VA has decided that they want to figure out if it is something that they're going to cover, and to do that. That's why they're having a study now.
NNAMDIKerri, how much do you know about the VA study, and how similar is it to the clinical trial at Purdue that you're participating in?
RODRIGUEZYeah, both studies are hugely important for really moving this field forward and understanding both how and why a service dog can make a difference in these veterans' lives. What the VA is actually looking at is the difference between an emotional support animal and a service dog for PTSD. They're really trying to distinguish what that task training is doing for PTSD and what just simply a well-trained, obedient dog is doing for PTSD.
RODRIGUEZWhereas our clinical trial is looking at how a service dog is impacting family functioning, that cortisol profile, as we were looking at, as well as things like sleep. So, we're trying to answer quite different questions, but largely have the same goal, which is to put empirical science behind this phenomenon.
NNAMDIAl, what would you like the decision-makers at the VA to know about the impact that service dogs can have for veterans living with emotional trauma?
MOOREIt's a huge change. I think it's a lot cheaper to, you know, get a veteran a dog than it is to keep pumping out bottles of medicine. It doesn't compare, at least in my experience. Not everybody's the same, but, for me.
NNAMDIHere is Kara in Odenton. Kara, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KARAHi, Kojo. As you said, this is Kara. I have a service dog. His name is Tank. And Tank and I have been together for seven-and-a-half years. He is a mobility service dog, not a PTSD service dog. But I also volunteer with an organization Fidos for Freedom, in Laurel. And we are a volunteer organization. We train service dogs for different disabilities, as well as for veterans with PTSD.
NNAMDIHow long have you been doing that, Kara?
KARAVolunteering with Fidos since -- probably eight years since I started training to get Tank.
NNAMDIOkay. And you're enjoining it?
KARAYes, I am, very much. I am currently the director of outreach, but I've held a couple of different positions with Fidos...
NNAMDIOkay, Kara, thank you.
KARA...and it's a great organization. We're like a family.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. And I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Rachel Chason is a reporter with the Washington Post. Rachel, thank you so much for joining us.
CHASONThank you very much.
NNAMDIAl Moore is a retired Marine. His service dog's name is Kevin. Al, thank you for joining us.
MOOREYou're very welcome. Thank you.
NNAMDIKevin, thank you for joining us, too. Kerri Rodriguez is a graduate researcher with Purdue University's Organization for Human-Animal Interaction Research and Education. Kerri, thank you for joining us.
RODRIGUEZThanks so much.
NNAMDIThis segment about service dogs for veterans was produced by Julie Depenbrock, and our conversation with Juli Briskman was produced by Margaret Barthel. Coming up tomorrow, the CDC reports that youth suicides are on the rise at a staggering rate. We'll discuss why that is and what can be done about it. And we'll meet some of the volunteer first responders who put their lives on the line to serve their community.
NNAMDIToday, we'd like to give a big shout out and thank you to Robin and Sasha Goki (sounds like) and Hannah Schneider who are all visiting us from Janney School today. Thank you for showing up for the show. That all starts tomorrow, at noon, the stuff that I just told you about, anyway. Until then, a very happy Veterans Day to all who have served and the families who stand behind them. And thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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