For the Battle-Scarred, Comfort at Leash’s End

* By Janie Lorber New York Times *

The dogs learn to fetch, turn lights on and off and even dial 911. Photo: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Just weeks after Chris Goehner, 25, an Iraq war veteran, got a dog, he was able to cut in half the dose of anxiety and sleep medications he took for post-traumatic stress disorder. The night terrors and suicidal thoughts that kept him awake for days on end ceased.

At the Mid-Orange Correctional Facility in Warwick, N.Y., service dogs share a room with the prisoners who help train them.

Aaron Ellis, 29, another Iraq veteran with the stress disorder, scrapped his medications entirely soon after getting a dog — and set foot in a grocery store for the first time in three years.

The dogs to whom they credit their improved health are not just pets. Rather, they are psychiatric service dogs specially trained to help traumatized veterans leave the battlefield behind as they reintegrate into society.

Because of stories like these, the federal government, not usually at the forefront of alternative medical treatments, is spending several million dollars to study whether scientific research supports anecdotal reports that the dogs might speed recovery from the psychological wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In dozens of interviews, veterans and their therapists reported drastic reductions in P.T.S.D. symptoms and in reliance on medication after receiving a service dog.

Veterans rely on their dogs to gauge the safety of their surroundings, allowing them to venture into public places without constantly scanning for snipers, hidden bombs and other dangers lurking in the minds of those with the disorder.

In August, Jacob Hyde got his service dog, Mya, from Puppies Behind Bars, a program based in New York State that uses prisoners to raise and train dogs for lives of service. The organization has placed 23 dogs with veterans with P.T.S.D. in the last two years, training them to obey 87 different commands.

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