Monday, February 06, 2012

Soldier's Best Friend program pairs military vets with dogs

Dogs have long been considered man's best friend, but the Yavapai Humane Society (YHS) is partnering with a remarkable organization dedicated to taking this concept a step further by declaring dogs the perfect companion for veteran soldiers.

Soldier's Best Friend is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI). By partnering with the Yavapai Humane Society, the Soldier's Best Friend program also helps homeless pets find an honorable home.

The program was started by veterinarian John Burnham, who saw the need when a few of his patients' owners returned from deployment.

"I watched them getting ready for deployment, as they'd come in with their animals and I'd see them when they came back," Burnham said. "It was obvious the attachment that was there with the animals and the effect the animals had on them."

Soldier's Best Friend was started in March of this year in Glendale. Dr. Burnham is now bringing the program to Yavapai County. He is pairing local veterans with a dog adopted from YHS or working with one they already own. The program is offered at no cost to veterans and includes adoption, training, feeding and medical care during the training period.

All U.S. military veterans and active military members suffering from PTSD or TBI qualify to participate in the program. Soldier's Best Friend is an organization made up of military members, combat veterans with PTSD, professional dog trainers, a veterinarian and PTSD therapists along with many other fine volunteers.

Depending on the individual need of the applicant, Soldier's Best Friend will train veterans with one of two types of dogs: a certified service dog or a therapeutic companion dog. A certified service dog is allowed by law to enter public places such as the veteran's place of employment, restaurants, buses and stores. These are rights established in the American Disability Act (ADA). A therapeutic companion dog is not allowed to enter most public venues, but the dog is fully obedience-trained including one or two special needs tasks.

Accepted applicants attend training classes two days a week for up to 30 weeks until both the veteran and his or her dog graduate from the program. The training is conducted at the American Legion Post 40 in Chino Valley.

Studies show that a service or therapeutic companion dog can help veterans recover and adjust back into civilian life easier when they are experiencing panic attacks, anxiety, depression, nightmares, flashbacks, uneasiness in crowded places, irritability, suicidal thoughts and/or reclusive behavior. Some studies show 80 percent of the veterans participating in this type of program experience improvement in their symptoms and a reduction or elimination in their use of medication.

Prescott residents Christopher Snodgrass, 28, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq; Andrew Polach, 52, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Beirut and Grenada; and Aaron Ragan, 24, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq have already enrolled in the program. All three veterans are in training with dogs adopted from YHS specifically for this program.

Dr. Burnham is hoping to enlist local veterinarians to help provide no- or low-cost veterinary services to veteran and dog program graduates. If you are a local veterinarian and you are interested in participating in Soldier's Best Friend, contact Dr. Burnham for more information.

All veterans with PTSD or TBI can apply for admission to this program by contacting John Burnham, DVM, President of Soldier's Best Friend, at 480-269-1738 or by emailing Letters of interest can also be sent to P.O. Box 6242, Glendale AZ 85312. More information on this program can be found at

Ed Boks is the executive director of the Yavapai Humane Society.  He can be reached at or by calling 445-2666, ext. 21.