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Orlando VA Medical Center


Paws of Freedom pups dig in against PTSD

Paws of Freedom Program

Mark Fiorello puts Bobo, a companion dog chosen for the Dept. of Veterans Affairs Paws of Freedom program, through training in joining the battle against posttraumatic stress disorder. Paws of Freedom provides companions to veterans suffering from stress-related maladies.

By Mike Strickler, Orlando VAMC Public Affairs
Wednesday, August 29, 2012

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla -- Two of Daytona Beach’s finest sat obediently Monday, awaiting their turn on stage for a special kind of graduation. Sans hat and gown but with wagging tails and tongues Bobo and Winna projected an accomplished sort of anticipation as their trainers and owners looked on beaming. Both were a short walk from joining a noble journey dedicated to combating posttraumatic stress disorder at the source.

More than 30 attendees gathered at the Tomoka Correctional Institution Aug. 27 to recognize 22 inmates and their charges that had just completed the West Volusia Kennel Club Prison Pups N Pals Program. Of the graduates Bobo and Winna earned special praise as the two companions selected for the Department of Veterans Affairs Paws of Freedom program.

The Paws of Freedom program is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs 2010 Innovation Initiative created to improve VA’s service quality, cost, access and performance, and comes in response to President Obama’s challenge to cut backlogs, slash wait times and deliver benefits to veterans sooner. Program manager Jennifer Muni-Sathoff, a mental health social worker in Daytona Beach, said the program is one of 30 the VA selected from among more than 4,500 submissions to meet the President’s challenge.

“Many people who have owned a dog have some understanding of their capacity to promote healing, and I believe that is why the VA chose to fund the program,” said Muni-Sathoff. “Dogs do not pass judgment, do not tell secrets, are trustworthy and loyal, and that makes them perfect companions in facilitating recovery.”

The West Volusia Kennel Club began its Prison Pups N Pals Program at Tomoka Correctional Institution in 2010 with the joint purpose of preparing Halifax Humane Society’s shelter dogs for home adoption and providing inmates a viable skill in dog obedience training. The Pups and Pals mission includes a multi-layered train-the-trainer structure that provides inmates with training skills that they pass on to the veterans receiving companions. The companion dogs selected for Paws of Freedom receive 14 weeks of training, including special supplemental
tasks in which the veteran plays a key role in teaching.

After adoption, veterans receive additional financial support from Paws of Freedom in caring for their companion, including a care package of immediate necessities and one year of pet health insurance. Veterans are encouraged to use the dog as a therapeutic intervention to promote their recovery and well-being. According to Muni-Sathoff Paws of Freedom follows a collective body of research data that supports the overall benefit of companion dogs to the psychological and physiological health of individuals with whom they interact, especially their owners.
The program links companion animals with veterans who meet diagnostic criteria for PTSD in an effort to promote recovery.

According to the program’s 2012 annual report, the program chooses shelter dogs instead of champion purebreds because they are street dogs whom often have suffered some kind of trauma themselves. “Because of this, often what emerges is an innate understanding of a shared experience,” said Muni-Sathoff. “This inherent connection lends itself to creating a strong bond between the veteran and dog.”

Initial results have shown noted improvements in lessened anxiety, increased sleep duration, increased exercise, decreased hyper vigilance and decreased feelings of isolation.

For more information on the Paws of Freedom program, contact Muni-Satoff at 386-366-6600.


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