Rescued Dogs Help Troubled Florida Veterans Cope | NBC 6 South Florida

Rescued Dogs Help Troubled Florida Veterans Cope

The training offered by Paws for Veterans, a Cocoa-based organization that adopts, trains and matches dogs with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries or other health issues.

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    Ziggy, a black Labrador-border collie mix, stayed close to James Carpenter as if they were longtime partners.

    The two had met only three days earlier but already had bonded through the training offered by Paws for Veterans, a Cocoa-based organization that adopts, trains and matches dogs with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries or other health issues.

    "I'm on six psychiatric medications, and I'm hoping he could help me get off some of it and just deal with life better," said Carpenter, 36, who served in the Marine Corps from 1997 to 2001.

    Crystal Ayala, president and lead trainer of Paws for Veterans, said the dogs are trained specifically for veterans' needs.

    These dogs are learning more than just how to heel.

    A dog may be trained to wake a person from a nightmare. It can remind a veteran to take medication by begging for a treat it has learned to expect at a certain time each day. A dog can also keep people in public from getting too close to someone who has trouble being in crowds.

    "Most of our guys are able to cut their medications in half," Ayala said of those suffering from mental health issues.

    Carpenter, a homeless veteran living in transitional housing in Cocoa, said he was already seeing a difference.

    A psychiatrist had suggested Carpenter get a service dog, but because he was living in the woods, he could not adopt one. He recently moved into the transition home and was teamed up with Ziggy.

    "You're looking at a dog like this that was in a shelter a few days ago," Ayala said after putting the animal through some of its training at the Gunnery Sgt. Elia Fontecchio VFW Post 10148 in Cocoa Beach.

    Russell Herrera, 24, came from Omaha for the initial one-week training with his dog, Kuno, a German shepherd. Herrera served two tours between 2007 and 2012 in Afghanistan with the Marine Corps.

    Suffering from PTSD, Herrera said the dog will help him.

    "It will make me more comfortable in public," he said.

    When Carpenter and Herrera leave with their dogs, their animals will be wearing vests identifying them as service dogs.

    Dog Vests 4 Vets, of Rockledge, which has been supplying dog vests for about two years to veterans around the country, has teamed with Ayala to provide the vests for some of the animals she trains.

    Denise Brooker said she has no connection to the military but wanted to do what she could to help veterans and started Dog Vests for Vets after a suggestion from a friend.

    "The vets like the personalized vests," she said of the vests made in uniform colors of the different branches. "They really find a connection to the vests I make. I do it for the veterans."

    Brooker said she would welcome help sewing vests because in recent months, requests have greatly increased. She has also started a fundraiser on the web site Indiegogo.com.

    "It has gotten so crazy busy," she said. "I'm just swamped. I have so many vests to make I had to start a fundraiser."

    Ayala, who has been operating the non-profit Paws for Veterans since 2010, is now offering dog obedience classes for anyone, and asks for a donation that goes to help pay for training dogs for veterans.

    Nana Williams, of Chicago, was one of the civilians whose dog, Charlie, was receiving obedience training along with the animals that will go to the veterans.

    "I have bipolar disorder and diabetes," she said. "The dog will alert me when it's time to eat. She's going to alert manic behavior."

    Del Fox of Cocoa said he will rely on his dog, Panzer, to help him cope withstenosisof the spine. He said his Department of Veterans Affairs doctor recommended that he get a service dog.

    Fox, 74, already had Panzer, a Rottweiler, for four years but the dog was not trained.

    "He's going to be trained to pull me up if I fall and to brace me," he said.