Paws of War

On this day, Robert Misseri, President of Smithtown-based non-profit Paws of War, got a little more than he bargained for as the Paws of War headquarters and training facility was bustling with activity.

Eleven black lab puppies had arrived from Louisiana the day before. The identical pups, all about 20 weeks old, were rescued from a southern dog pound at the 11th hour from certain death.

Through a volunteer Paws of War network, Misseri set up transportation to deliver the puppies to Long Island, and was busy making arrangements with local foster families for the dogs to be evaluated and cared for.

If the pup is selected as a Paws of War adoption candidate, he or she will be trained to be a psychiatric service dog, a therapy considered to be a new frontier in treating PTSD, by training dogs to perform task-oriented commands, and as an important by-product, provide emotional support to the veteran dog owner.

“We don’t know if these particular puppies are purebred, as we are limited when it’s a rescue, but this was a unique fi nd. These puppies were going to be put down. Many shelters in the south get puppies like this all the time, and they euthanize them,” Misseri says.

Misseri couldn’t let that happen. “These puppies represent purpose and hope to many Long Island veterans.”

“The key is to match the dog with a veteran.”

Each dog is given a numbered collar that coincides with their personality.

Some dogs don’t want to be around other dogs, so we know what veteran is going to work best with that particular dog. We look at which one has the lowest energy, and the highest energy.

Some of them might not make it as a service dog at all,” he says.

Misseri has seven approved applicants, all local Long Island veterans, waiting for a young dog. If the other four puppies are not selected, they will go to a general adoption.

Most veterans are referred to Paws of War by their personal physician, from the Veterans Administration, or other veteran agencies or organizations.

“Typically, service dogs were used to help guide the blind, the deaf or people with significant immobility problems. These dogs provide psychiatric help for veterans with PTSD. They will be trained to calm them down and do other tasks, like remind them to take medication, or wake them up from night tremors. They also assist veterans with balance issues resulting from Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI),” says Misseri.

The need for these service dogs is evident just by looking at the statistics.

Long Island has the largest concentration of veterans in the state of New York and is home to the Northport Veterans Hospital, one of the largest medical facilities in the country.

Between 11-to-20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to the US Department of Veteran Affairs. They also report that on average, 22 US veterans commit suicide each day.

PTSD is an invisible injury to a human, but it is not invisible to a dog. As a person’s heart rate and breathing increases, the body produces adrenaline. A dog who is trained to recognize these symptoms will react to them, sometimes even before the veteran is
aware of what is happening.

Trained service dogs can help them recognize the symptoms, often before they have even begun. Having a trained dog is a way for them to get a better handle on their problem and manage post-trauma life.

Veterans with dogs showed significantly lower levels of PTSD, including depression, nightmares and social anxiety, along with a higher level of emotional well-being.

Even something as mundane as going to the movies can be terrifying for someone with PTSD.

The dark, crowded theatre where only whispering is allowed could be a deal breaker for a veteran, who would rather stay home than venture out into the unknown.

While the puppies played in the training area, a Paws of War veteran named Russell, and his service dog, Artemis, stopped in to say hello to Robert. Russell told Robert that he had recently attended a Jones Beach concert and during the concert began to have a panic attack. He said Artemis sensed his distress and sprang into action leading Joe through the crowd, out of the venue to a waiting ambulance.

The dogs can provide a sense of space and security, can soothe a panicking vet and provide a reason to get out of the house–even if only for a walk.

Some doctors view the dogs as a complement to conventional therapy.

Paws of War has a list of veterans waiting for a service dog. Not everyone wants a puppy, many prefer an older dog.

Before taking over the reins at Paws of War, Misseri, who has a background in animal rescue, was bringing dogs back from Afghanistan and Iraq to reunite them with their veteran owners.

“When we placed our first dog with a veteran, he could not leave the house without the dog and the dog wasn’t properly trained. We started training the dog so he could take the veteran to public places. The veteran admitted to us that he was about to take his life and that the dog saved him.”

“These veterans have suffered a great deal and many of them have chronic pain from injuries they sustained while in service. Many were given a significant amount of pain pills and now are trying to cope without them and are going into depression because of the pain,” Misseri says.

Recently, Misseri reunited a veteran, Army Spc. Zack McIntyre with his dog, Mimi, who was left in Afghanistan when he returned to the US.

When once many of the veterans would isolate themselves, they are now going to dog parks, meeting up with other veterans and their dogs and socializing.

Part of the Paws of War vetting process is to check out the veteran’s social media profile. Misseri says that most were not on social media, but not long after they got their dog, they were posting pictures and creating pages with their dog’s name.

“We’ve seen significant reductions in medications, depression, suicide, and an increase in family life and employment. We have veterans that were unemployed for 4 or 5 years and a year into having a dog, they are working,” Misseri says proudly.

There is more to this organization than matching dogs to veterans. Another is fostering, an integral part of the training process.

Successful foster families have experience training dogs and are not required to be a veteran. There is other criteria that is required, depending on the dog and the circumstance.

“It really depends on each individual case,” Misseri says. “We do some of our testing around kids, other dogs and cats. Sometimes we want that, sometimes we don’t.”

The organization is also in need of volunteers who have a passion and love for animals and people.

“We need people to help us at the medical treatment facilities and public access places to monitor the progress of how the veteran is working on a daily routine with their dog. We need volunteers who can interact with other people and know how to ask the right questions and can gather data from the hospital training. It’s a great opportunity to work with veterans from the Korean War, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan.”

With all of these challenges, Misseri says the biggest one is making sure there is enough money to keep the operation running smoothly.

“We have veteran’s applications pending for more dogs. We can get the dogs, but it boils down to finances. We are the grunts, we don’t have a fundraising person on staff, so we rely on our donors reaching out to us and corporate sponsorships to keep us going. We rely on our volunteers too, so it’s not easy,” he says.

Misseri is very grateful to Mercedes-Benz of Smithtown for hosting a fundraiser for Paws of War, raising more than $6,000 for the organization, which will be used toward veterinary care, food, training and care for the service dogs.

It costs about $20,000 per dog to train, so there is a continual need for funding. Misseri is pleased that his organization has placed over 70 dogs with veterans, but there is always more to do.

“There is constant follow up. It’s ‘mandatory without consequence’ that the dogs are brought back for training once a week.”

“They want to come and they actually look forward to it, because they get to see other veterans in the program and it gets them out of the house,” Misseri says.

“They are doing things that they would not normally do, and Paws of War is really having a positive impact on their lives.”

For more information on donating, volunteering and fostering, go to pawsofwar.0rg