Dogs are the best medicine for Wounded Veterans

Tamar Geller with SoldiersHow animals help soldiers in need regain their trust in humanity and get the love they deserve

By Kelsey Duckett

(Note: We know that this is an article we featured in July of 2011, but we thought it was an article worth sharing again!)

Tamar Geller: A Trainer’s Perspective

Operation Heroes & Hounds, created in 2008 by popular dog trainer Tamar Geller, pairs veterans with shelter dogs, most who have behavior problems or are on euthanasia lists. The program helps wounded soldiers and active-duty Marines at Camp Pendleton in San Diego work with the dogs, following Geller’s positive training methods. Through organizations such as this, and similar programs across the country, members of the United States military and shelter dogs are receiving the love and attention they deserve to live happier, more comfortable lives.

Why did you start Operation Heroes & Hounds?

I was an intelligence officer with the special forces in Israel, and there I got to see how dogs were incorporated with the missions. But more than that, I have been coaching dogs for 23 years, and I see the miracles that they create in people’s lives. I wanted to bring it to the men and women who serve our country, who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or any veteran who needs us, and I work with both. I also wanted to rebrand shelter dogs. Unfortunately, the image the shelter dogs have is that they are defective; that there is something is wrong with them. People say why would I get a shelter dog? I am just going to have problems. In my mind, there is nothing wrong with a shelter dog other than they have been dumped from the relationship they are in. Most of us have been dumped at one point in our lives, but we were not put in a shelter with a one-way ticket. So I didn’t want to just rescue dogs—I wanted to give them opportunites to show to the world how they give to us, how they make our lives better. In the process the veterans are completely changed, and the dogs get mannered so we can find them homes more easily. 

What makes shelter dogs good service dogs?

Any dog can make a great service dog, because every dog wants to serve. It is natural for them to want to be on a team. I don’t see the need to go and breed a dog when you don’t know what you are getting. We have a high, high rate of dropout and nervous breakdown from dogs who are purposely bred to be service dogs. We have a very high success rate with shelter dogs. Whether it is police dogs, service dogs, family pets, whatever—it is about the trainer, it’s about the coach.

Operation Heroes & HoundsIs there a reason shelter dogs are an especially good fit for soldiers who come home with physical ailments?

Yes, the dog who has been in the shelter has his own post-traumatic stress to deal with. What I have seen with my participants at Operation Heroes & Hounds is that the men and the women go out of their way for the dog because they feel the dog is not a spoiled brat. That dog suffered, and can understand their suffering. They form an instant bond. I worked with a man who was shot in the face by a sniper and has been in therapy for two years, taking sleeping pills to help him relax. Just three weeks after we paired him with a Lab, three weeks with that dog, and he no longer had to take sleeping pills. It is incredible. I literally see miracles. It is insane, particularly in this economic time, to pay $50,000 per service dog when we have shelter dogs who are being destroyed.

Do the dogs end up eventually being adopted by other families or do some stay with the men and women who they worked with?

Both. Most of the time the men and the women who work with the dogs are not in a position to take on a four-legged child. However, we have had people in the program adopt. Families are thrilled to adopt a dog who is not only is well mannered, but has also helped people who served our country.

What has this experience been like for you?

It is the highlight of my week, every week. I do it every Tuesday and Friday, and I spend my own money. I put a lot of me, on every level, into this work. I can’t tell you how much I get in return, which is generally how life works—the more you give the more you receive. To see those big, scary guys, who are so closed-off when we first meet, being silly, speaking baby talk, and rolling around on the floor with the dogs, it is like, “Oh my God.” When the vets see the dog’s transformation, and they are moved to tears, it moves me to tears. The fact that the dogs become well mannered in the process, that is an extra bonus. It is really about the people. We all get to learn better life skills, and we get gratitude, gratitude, gratitude.

To learn more, visit OperationHeroesAndHounds.com

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