By Hannah Duncan SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — For many veterans, countless days are filled with stress, depression, and anxiety. However, a local non-profit is trying to help veterans with the aid of some furry friends.
At Clear Path for Veterans in Chittenango, a new program called Harley’s Heroes looks to bring healing to veterans as they train with dogs. Harley’s Heroes coordinator Nicole Soule learned from her own life the impact that dogs can have in times of pain.
“I myself have Crohn’s disease, and we got a Golden Retriever puppy probably about three months before I was diagnosed, back when I was like 12,” Soule said. “She changed everything. I mean, I don’t think I would’ve had the same experience and I wouldn’t have been able to heal so well if I didn’t have her there.”
The program was made in honor of a dog named Harley, who was sadly hit by a car and killed last year. The volunteers are trying to use the program to show how something good can come out of the bad.
Clear Path for Veterans has other offerings too, such as wellness programs, a service dog program, and K9 Mingle, which is open to anyone. When you walk outside Clear Path for Veterans, you will see a beautiful view.
Soule said that the view and the whole environment is part of what brings vets to the area, but the best sight to see there is the unbreakable bond between dogs and their owners.
“Just having them come in once a week and engaging and watching them have fun with their dog and learn new things that they didn’t even realize that they could be doing,” Soule said.
Veterans can bring their own dogs, or train with ones that are kept onsite. While the program is free for the veterans, it costs over $30,000 for Clear Path to raise one of their own. Donations are accepted on their website. As a foster parent, Mary Giroux brings a dog in for training every week. Giroux said the effort and cost is worth it because of the relationships built with the dogs.
“A dog looks to you for their care and protection and help,” Giroux said. “But we also depend on them because they give us a lot of emotional support.”
A study led by the Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine confirmed Giroux’s thoughts when they found that veterans with service dogs showed increased levels of social participation, along with significantly lower overall symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Giroux also explained that the dogs can do physical tasks, and they can also bridge the gap between the owner and people who might be afraid to approach them. Soule said that while the program is doing great work, she hopes it expands in the future.
“I would like to be able to have a few different avenues for the veterans to go into after the program,” Soule said. At the end of the class, there is a Canine Good Citizen evaluation that is an assessment of the dog’s progress. If they pass, it opens up the possibility of different career paths. “I would like to partner up with some people and have them work as therapy teams,” Soule said. “Therapy dogs would be going into hospitals or schools and working for other people.”
Right now when the course is finished, the service dogs work solely for the handler, but the goal is to eventually offer help guiding them through a path to become a therapy dog as well.