How Our Best Furry Friends Help Us Heal From Stress And Burnout

Puppies Behind Bars

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Pet therapy aids people with PTSD, stress, and burnout to heal quicker. Photo By Shane Guymon on Unsplash
Pet therapy aids people with PTSD, stress, and burnout to heal quicker. Photo By Shane Guymon on Unsplash

The use of pet therapy in mental health isn’t new. Numerous studies show that animal-assisted therapy reduces pain and anxiety among patients with cancer, heart disease and PTSD. Observing an aquarium or stroking a bird, cat or dog lowers blood pressure and relaxes you. According to one study of four million people worldwide, dog ownership was as effective as medication, lowering the risk of dying early by 24%. Another study of 336,000 men and women found that dog owners had better health after suffering a major heart attack, compared to non-owners.

About Puppies Behind Bars (PBB)

In the United States, more first responders die by suicide than in the line of duty each year. What is new and unique is a nonprofit New York-based program, Puppies Behind Bars, committed to mitigating and increasing awareness of PTSD. The organization trains prison inmates to raise service dogs for first responders and war veterans suffering from PTSD. Through six correctional facilities in New York and New Jersey, PBB has raised more than 1,200 dogs, bringing their love and healing to hundreds of individuals and hope and pride to their raisers.

Team Training And Graduation

“Team training” is a 14-day-long process whereby service dogs, inmates and first responders come together. Prison inmates teach first responders and war veterans commands, how to care for the dogs, and how to make dogs part of their lives. The journey is educational and emotional, culminating in a graduation ceremony that celebrates the dogs, recipients and what lies ahead for both. Especially exciting was the August training and graduation when for the first time an active-duty police officer went into a maximum-security prison to receive a Puppies Behind Bars dog. 

The PBB Founder’s Story

The founder of PBB, Gloria Gilbert Stoga, said her inspiration to start this unique program came after reading an article about Dr. Thomas Lane, a Gainesville, Florida veterinarian who ran a prison/guide dog program: “The concept moved me to the point where I saved the article and kept re-reading it every few months. I subsequently had the privilege of visiting Dr. Lane and spoke with inmates and program staff in three prisons that had his program. This left me with my own ideas about what worked well and what I could work on if I were to start my own like-minded program. I’ve always loved dogs and all animals and thought this could be the perfect way to combine personal passions with my drive to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Six months later, Stoga quit her job and approached Libby Pataki, the then First Lady of New York State. With her help, PBB was born. Starting with five Labrador retriever puppies, Stoga entered the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York State’s only maximum-security prison for women. Working with war veterans, first responders and convicted felons over the years, Stoga says she has seen how dogs truly change people: “I know it sounds like a cliché, but the truth is I have seen, time and time again, tough people become soft, scared people become confident, quiet people become leaders and angry people become content. I have seen that dogs bring out the best in people, regardless of their circumstances, and by working together with a common goal — which is to make life easier for first responders and war veterans — the divisions between people on the “outside” versus people on the “inside” begin to blur. All groups come together over dogs, and that creates a cohesiveness which I don’t think would be possible if dogs were not the common factor.”

Up Close And Personal Stories

PBB has had a profound impact on our nation’s heroes, some who have physical wounds and many others have “invisible wounds,” like PTSD. These consequences can interfere with emotional well-being but also everyday life — even regular errands like going to the supermarket are difficult for individuals suffering from PTSD. This unique program, and the support of service dogs, helps bring our heroes back to who they are as people, no matter what daily challenges stand before them. Here are just a few of the inspiring personal transformations for the dogs, veterans, first responders as well as their families. 

Brian Andrews (New Jersey)

In May 2018, Brian Andrews, a former NYPD officer and 9/11 responder, was matched with Pete, a black Lab, who quickly became his anchor through daily struggles with depression and physical injuries after being shot in the line of duty. Pete was easily integrated into the Andrews family, who is thankful for the wide range of support that he provides every day. When Andrews is hurting, Pete knows exactly what to do. Since Pete has come into the Andrews family they say he is “even-tempered and more like himself,” calling Pete’s instincts a miracle.

Jeanne Meyer (Colorado)

Jeanne Meyer is a Retired Air Force Colonel, who has served 25 years and three deployments. Meyer suffered her first trauma during her second deployment in Afghanistan in 2002, when she was assaulted by allied soldiers. By the end of January, startled by every noise, she had lost nearly 10 pounds and couldn’t sleep. Meyer was paired with her service dog, Angel. As someone who worked as a deputy staff judge advocate in the Air Force Space Command, Meyer’s experience with PBB changed her perception of  inmates. She says, “So now, seeing the other side of it, and seeing these women who are committed to making their lives better within the structure they are given and their willingness to give of themselves to strangers they don’t know, is amazing.”

Darryl Vandermark (New York)

Darryl Vandermark’s PTSD has accumulated over his thirty years as a firefighter with the Orange County Fire Department. Many of his past recovery incidents on the HAZMAT team led to rescue missions that would often lead to life or death situations. Day in and day out, Vandermark would place himself, alongside his team, in harm’s way to come to the rescue of those in need. Almost every mile marker on Interstate 84 in New York brings back horrible triggers. The physical and mental effects severely affected Vandermark’s ability to function, and he landed in the hospital. But since his service dog, Patriot’s 24/7 presence, Vandermark has gained a partner that has changed his life and made him feel safe and grounded, allowing him to keep working no matter what each day brings. He frequently takes calls, emails and texts at all hours to talk to others experiencing PTSD, helping people recognize that they’re not weak or broken because of what they’re facing, just as he was able to recognize within himself.

Heather McClelland (Connecticut)

Heather McClelland, an active duty-police officer, has worked 7.5 years for the Groton Police Department as the Community Policing Coordinator, a position through which she teaches DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) classes in schools and coordinates community events throughout the year. For the first seven years, she worked Patrol as a Field Training Officer and Wellness Coordinator. She was previously selected Groton Town Police Departments Officer of the Year for 2015 for her hard work. McClelland uses her service dog, McDonald, to improve community relations, enhance officer wellness at the police department and provide therapeutic services to the community. McDonald has been fully incorporated into her everyday responsibilities, including DARE classes, visits to local community places such as schools, libraries, senior centers, athletic events and kids’ programs. She says the possibilities in serving her fellow officers and the community are endless. 

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