As the tragic events of September 11, 2001 unfolded on America’s television screens, Heidi Spirazza, an occupational therapist who spe- cializes in animal assisted therapy, knew it was only a matter of time before the United States would send our troops into war. In 2006, Heidi founded the nonpro t organization Paws 4 Liberty, as a direct response to the needs of soldiers returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Located just outside of Wellington, Florida, Paws 4 Liberty, a 501 nonpro t organization, is dedicated to helping restore the lives of wounded veterans as they struggle to adjust to life after war. The mission of Paws 4 Liberty is to help returning soldiers regain their independence and confidence through the assistance of trained service dogs.
With a primary focus on post 9/11 veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), Paws 4 Liberty carefully screens, trains, and matches service dogs with qualifying veterans at no cost to the recipient. While some service dog organizations have their own breeding program, Paws 4 Liberty does not breed dogs. All the organization’s service dogs come from local animal shelters or rescue groups or are donated to the organization.
Although the organization works with veterans from all wars, there is currently a critical need for service dogs for veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS). The U.S. Military now has the highest rate of PTS in its history. The symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress, such as anger, hostility, alienation, and depression are debilitating and can have serious consequences for veterans and their families. Research shows that recovery from war is heavily influenced by the society one returns to, and many veterans with PTS return home to an overburdened system of care that can leave veterans waiting months and sometimes years for treatment that may or may not effectively provide relief. PTS symptoms such as hyper-vigilance, anxiety attacks, and perceived threats trigger what is known as the “flight or fight” mode, which serve soldiers well when they were in combat. However, if untreated, PTS can become a life sentence of mental illness that affects the ability to sleep, interact socially, and maintain a job or a meaningful relationship. The symptoms of PTS impact not only veterans, but also their families, and the community in which they live.
With her background in animal assisted therapy, Heidi knew that pairing returning veterans with highly trained service dogs could greatly enhance the veterans’ quality of life. “Our service dogs are helping veterans regain their independence with the aid of their highly trained, four-legged 24/7 companion – their service dog. There is no modern, high-tech piece of equipment that can replicate all these amazing animals do for our veterans,” says Heidi.
Now, in 2018, Heidi’s vision for Paws 4 Liberty has grown. The organization currently serves approximately 25 veterans annually, in two core programs: The Service Dogs for Veterans program and the Train Your Own Dog Program. Paws 4 Liberty’s Service Dogs for Veterans program screens, trains, and matches service dogs with qualified veterans. In the Train Your Own Dog Program, Paws 4 Liberty works with veterans who already have a dog and would like their dog to learn tasks that would help them with their PTS symptoms. These veteran/dog teams are screened for suitability in the program and, once admitted, the teams work together learning tasks and service commands that will help the dog assist the veteran with stress symptoms.
One of the veterans in the Train Your Own Dog program, David, speaks highly of his dog, LT (Lieutenant). “He has completely changed my life,” says David. “My dog is 100% focused on me. One night, the dog sensed that I was having a nightmare coming on and he licked the bottom of my feet to wake me up.” David adds, “I stay pretty calm as long as I have him. He is unconditional love.”
Chuck, another veteran working with Paws 4 Liberty, says, “My dog, Sonny, is gentle. He re- trieves things for me and picks my spirits up, even if I am in pain. He can even alert me before my spasms; in a nightmare, he will come and lie on me to calm me down; he’s very tuned in.”
Heidi knows the value of putting together a good team to create a safe space for veterans like David and Chuck. The organization’s small volunteer board of directors is chaired by Joe Rainey, himself a veteran who has been matched with a Paws 4 Liberty service dog, Tanker. Joe knows first-hand how a service dog can improve the quality of life for veterans. “By finding the right dog for the right vet, we’re changing one life at a time with high-quality service dogs,” Joe says.
Heidi is also assisted by veteran services/administrative coordinator Nina Anschuetz, who keeps things operating smoothly, and trainer Oscar Rojas. A professional dog trainer since 1988, Oscar works with the veterans and dogs to help them learn the skills they need to for a true human/animal partnership. Whether it’s one-on-one or group training sessions, Oscar is deeply committed to the success of each veteran he works with. In Oscar’s words, “Seeing the change that the veterans go through is what makes it all worth it.”
Many veterans su ering from PTS are in danger of falling through the cracks and not receiving the help they need to heal and recover from their wounds. The fact that 1 in 6 veterans di- agnosed with PTS will attempt or commit suicide is a tragic reality- Paws 4 Liberty is committed to o ering returning veterans a second chance at life through the assistance and loving companionship of a highly trained service dog.
To find out more about Paws 4 Liberty and how you can help, visit www.paws4liberty.org.