Service Dogs Help Returning Vets’ Spinal Injuries and More

Thankfully, we are beginning to see our country’s veterans return home from Afghanistan in record numbers. Many of those are returning home with serious injuries or disabilities that require the use of walkers, leg braces and wheelchairs. While the adjustment to life with a disability takes some time, a new study shows that dogs are playing a major role in helping veterans adjust to post-war life at home.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have caused the deployment of over 2.5 million service members. Of those, 670,000 have been listed as having returned home with one or more disabilities, and another 100,000 are waiting for the official processing of their claims.

We’ve heard a lot about what the canines have contributed in the war, and several initiatives have grabbed the media’s attention, including the “Nowzad Dogs,” which allows dogs that worked with military members in Afghanistan to be reunited with their soldier after the soldier’s tour of duty is over. The “Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act” is awaiting its vote by Congress, but has wide support and provides lifetime veterinary care for dogs that serve in the military.

While the role the dogs play in war is impressive, what they are doing for our soldiers when they return home is even more inspiring.

Mary Cortani was named one of this year’s Top 10 CNN Heroes. She runs a non-profit called Operation Freedom Paws, which helps veterans train service dogs in Northern California. The program matches veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder with dogs from shelters and rescue groups.

“Service dogs are but one tool, but they’re a very important tool, in the healing process for our veterans,” Cortani says.

The Department of Defense funded a study at Texas A&M that used paralyzed dogs as test subjects for an experimental drug that blocks enzymes known to affect spinal cord injuries.

Glendon Bentley, executive director of the Lone Star chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, says “If this works and actually rejuvenates some of the spinal cord nerve endings, it could alleviate some of that pain and possibly allow [injured veterans] to (transition) from a wheelchair to a walker or leg braces.”

“One of the big obstacles in the past has been a lot of the research has used rodents and experimental animals,” said Dr. Jonathan Levine (pictured at top of post), a veterinarian and associate professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Texas A&M. “Hopefully what that is going to lead to is better mobility, better ability to empty the bladder, and that is going to be beneficial, of course, to dogs and, hopefully, that can be scaled up to humans as well.”

Levine and his team received $900,000 in grant money from the Department of Defense to develop a non-invasive therapy for the spinal cord injuries that currently costs between $729,000 and $3.2 million per patient’s lifetime.

Dogs were also used in a British study that used cells taken from the lining of the nose as an injection placed into the injury site. The cells helped to produce more nerve cells and allowed the dogs to regain some use of their limbs, according to Cambridge University researchers.

Soldier with Spinal Injury and Her Service Dog

Watch the videos to see more about the research and Operation Freedom Paws. What’s your favorite thing about man’s (and woman’s) best friend?


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