By Maggie Finley
Among the alternative modalities available to active duty, retired and even incarcerated military personnel are programs utilizing companion dogs or therapeutic horses to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. As the name implies, companion dogs live with vets and are trained beyond the scope of touch to relieve anxiety, often lending actual physical support. They perform a number of specific tasks: retrieving medication, turning on lights, aiding hearing-impaired people or waking a warrior from flashbacks or night terrors. Horses, too, are proving helpful to warriors who self-report having grown weary, distrustful of or otherwise disinterested in more traditional forms of therapy.
Personnel with a history of multiple tours often run out of options and hit bottom, having lost faith in themselves and in leadership. Some who are “sick and tired of being sick and tired” fortunately find themselves exposed to the idea of horsemanship. Stats from the Department of Veterans Affairs record that nearly 70% of these persons opt out of getting any help at all, tending to isolate themselves in their homes, since they are “mentally fragile and tend to back away from what is new and scary,” according to Debbi Fisher at Hope for Heroes. However, many who begin working with therapeutic animals find their way back from the brink of despair — giving them not only “something to get up for” but also reducing their dependence on prescribed medications.
Anecdotally, veterans respond favorably to this non-probative form of therapy. Wary of questions about their sometimes gruesome experiences of service and combat, veterans are likely to value and better respond to “non-verbal, non-labeling and non-judgmental” presence — similar to what chaplains provide in their work.
In Washington state, two animal-assistance programs showing significant success in their work with warriors are Brigadoon Dogs’ veteran program in Bellingham and Hope for Heroes Equine Therapy Consulting in Yelm. Service dogs and horses are specially trained over time to help warriors normalize situations: to relieve hypervigilance, regain independence and self-confidence, communicate in a positive and effective way as well as identify and give them coping strategies for managing flashbacks and emotions — ultimately, offering them future hope. Each program expresses as much in aspirational mottos: “Changing lives one partnership at a time” and “I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal” (Jeremiah 30:17), respectively. Both programs originated in direct response to the needs of Washington’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Both are non-profit organizations, relying on fundraising for viability, offering their services to warriors at no cost, convinced “they have more than paid the price with their service,” as Debbi says.
Denise Costanten, the founding executive director of Brigadoon Dogs, says her late husband, Leon, a retired Army special ops lieutenant colonel, encouraged her to make Brigadoon a reality. Although Brigadoon’s service dogs are accessed by other client populations, her work with veterans began in 2011 when she accepted the Lewis-McChord base commander’s invitation to evaluate dogs. He had concerns about vets adopting rescues that were neither suited to nor properly trained for manageable companioning. Denise helped veteran clients and existing dogs to meet Assistance Dog International standards, and the prison program for incarcerated veterans began in 2012. Vets under supervision have total responsibility for the care and training of dogs to be placed with other veterans. For inmates, it is a source of pride to give back to their own. Denise manages and consults four programs concurrently inside minimum security prisons, and in spring 2020, she will begin the first program of this kind for incarcerated women. Denise continues to be inspired by her work, since it’s really about relationship building. It’s not unusual for warriors “to stay in touch for years – at the very least, during the life of the dog.”
At Hope for Heroes, Debbi Fisher’s passion for training active-duty service members and veterans to work with horses also comes from her awareness of mental health crisis within her own military community. She became a Gold Star widow in 2006. Today she has a son in the Marine Corps and a daughter serving as an Air Force pilot. In finding what she believes she was meant to do, she watched as “God opened some doors and closed others.” Finally, she discovered not only a new outlet as a certified therapeutic horsemanship instructor, but also met her husband, Bob Woelk. Bob is business manager and PR specialist, promoting the program through community outreach. Besides being the lead trainer, Debbi consults onsite, via telephone and Skype with other horsemanship programs from around the globe. She continues to identify study subjects and gather data for her research projects with Baylor University.
Hope’s barn sits within view of Mount Rainier, providing a quiet and peaceful environment, where 11 school horses are housed, accommodating 40-50 referrals from the Army’s Warrior Transition Battalion and the Air Force’s Medical Flight Unit. Participants commit to 90-minute leadership sessions twice weekly for eight weeks. While the reduction in the PTSD score shows “clinical meaningful change” after that time, Debbi and Bob have observed remarkable changes in the affect, energy and bearing of participants formerly on suicide watch after as little as four to six weeks.
“Core to the program are grooming and groundwork,” Debbi says. “That’s all that’s really needed to help warriors, while to eventually get on the horse is icing!” Debbi and Bob acknowledge that it’s within the very nature of horses to “heal invisible wounds.” Horses are uniquely suited to this work because of their innate ability to mirror, which is hard-wired into their instinct for survival. Mirroring gives the handler instant biofeedback. Handlers can see and adjust their anxiety because when the horse is calm, the handler calms and vice versa. “Horse and handler are set up for success, while ending on a high note through positive reinforcement helps establish the handler as the horse’s leader. The subtle, non-verbal communication between horse and handler elicits confidence and self-esteem.
Debbi finds genuine joy in witnessing the ripple effect and its implications for transformation – improving and restoring the handler’s life. And those ripples may spread further, as pending legislation in Congress may make equine therapy eligible for grants aimed at preventing suicide among veterans.
Maggie Finley, BCC, is a retired chaplain from Providence Hospice of Seattle.