For some current and former Soldiers, the furry companion by their side is much more than just a best friend. Soldier’s Best Friend is an Arizona non-profit organization that assists veterans with disabilities such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury, by pairing them with a canine and training the animal as a service or therapeutic companion dog.
John Burnham, an Arizona veterinary doctor since 1983, started SBF in January 2011. The organization is based out of Glendale, but there are teams located and services offered in Tempe, Prescott, Tucson and Sierra Vista.
Service dogs and therapeutic companion dogs can provide assistance in various ways to help veterans dealing with the symptoms of PTSD and TBI. Once approved for the training program, the veteran and the selected dog will go through a five to seven month-long training period. Basic tasks that the dog will be trained to do, depending on the needs of the veteran, are traveling beside him or her to ease anxiety in crowds, block approaching persons, provide emotional support, aid in physical disabilities such as walking, fetching items as needed, provide hearing assistance, and much more.
Jim Cleven, human resource specialist, Civilian Personnel Advisory Center and a recent graduate of the SBF program, explained that having a service dog has helped him in many areas of his life. His dog, Spirit, assists with PTSD symptoms and provides hearing assistance as well.
Cleven said, “I obtained my dog, Spirit, on October 30, 2011 from a rescue group in Tucson. After a home visit by SBF, my application was approved and we started classes on November 19. On December 6, Spirit started coming to work with me. We trained daily during lunch and at home, along with [weekly] training sessions that were provided by SBF, here in Sierra Vista.
After six months of training, Spirit graduated, along with five others, on May 20, 2012. He goes everywhere with me and has been on five airline flights, one being a week-long [work assignment] to Maryland. Training, working and living with a service dog is rewarding in many ways.”
This service is offered to all active duty and veterans who can complete the training program locally in Arizona, upon acceptance to the program and is of no cost to the veteran. According to the SBF website, “All veterinary services, most food and supplies will be at no charge to the veteran during the training process. Following graduation, the veteran will be responsible for food costs and basic care. Reduced veterinary fees will be offered through a group of volunteer veterinary hospitals in Arizona.”
The dogs that are chosen as companions are often adopted from rescue groups or shelters. Veterans may choose to use a dog of their choice, but there are characteristics that can prevent acceptance to the program, such as any kind of aggressive behavior, anxiety or nervousness, and the maturity level and age of dog. Evaluations are performed to determine canine acceptance.
Rocky Boatman, a SBF team lead, explains. “A veteran hears about SBF and applies online or calls them and requests a service dog. There is paperwork involved to ensure the client has PTSD or TBI and falls within the guidelines. Once the paperwork is approved, John [Burnham] comes down from Phoenix and visits the home of veterans who want a service dog and has been preapproved. If the home visit goes well … and they have a dog already, he will start the evaluation of the dog at that time to ensure that the dog is suitable [to be] a service dog. Once John is done on his side of the house, he lets me know that the client has been approved. I do an evaluation with the dog itself, the temperament testing, and I will sit down with the client and talk about what the dog needs to be trained for.” The application process time can vary, depending on the applicant’s circumstances.
For general questions or to start the application process, visit http://soldiersbestfriend.org/ or call 1.480.269.1738.