PAWS Act: CT Veteran Has Life-Changing Experience With Service Dog

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It's been said that dogs can have certain healing powers. And now, a federal law in channeling those healing powers to help our men and women in uniform.

President Joe Biden signed the PAWS Act, which stands for Puppies Assisting With Wounded Service Members, on Wednesday. The act kicks off a five-year pilot program to connect service dogs with veterans suffering from a variety of injuries - both physical and otherwise.

The Department of Veterans Affairs said 20 to 30% of veterans live with PTSD and nearly 18 service members take their owns lives every day.

A VA study from earlier this year found that veterans paired with service dogs had fewer suicidal thoughts and an improvement in mental health overall.

Connecticut's Tony Charles knows that dogs do help. He retired in 2012 after serving 25 years in the Army Reserve, deployed to both Bosnia and Kuwait. When he returned home, he found himself angry, depressed and anxious.

A therapist put him in touch with a group called "Educated Canines Assisting With Disabilities," which is based in Winsted. They run a program called "Project Heal."

The program aims to train dogs specifically to help with veterans who have different needs.

"We train the dogs to do medical reminders, so they can remember to take their medication, train the dog to interrupt night terrors or flashback, help balance them. In Tony's case, he will help balance him. Retrieving and tugging, all service dogs learn that but not all service dogs learn medical reminders or interrupting night terror or flashback," said Lu Picard, co-founder of Educated Canines Assisting With Disabilities.

President Joe Biden signed the Paws Act into law on Wednesday. The bill connects veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder with service dogs.

Charles was placed with a dog named Dozer back in 2014. He said Dozer changed his life.

"He helped me regain my independence. Before I had him, I wasn't going out. I wouldn't go to a mall. I would wait until almost midnight to go to the grocery store, I couldn't stand around crowds of people. I was basically a wreck," Charles said.

"It didn't cure me, it didn't eliminate the need for me to be on medication or be in groups but it gave me the ability to face the recovery process better. It made the treatment work better. Having the service dog, having the dog by my side gave me great confidence to go out and face the public. It gave me a sense of purpose," Charles continued.

Unfortunately, Dozer died in May, suddenly and unexpectedly. Charles said the past few months have been difficult without Dozer and he's regressed. He's not sleeping and has angry outbursts. Even his personal relationships are effected.

But now, he's getting a new service dog. And again, it's all thanks to Project Heal.

"Even though Tony's not in the military anymore, he's still a warrior. He still has to serve and have a purpose and with a service dog, he can do both. He has to keep the dog fed and well cared for, he can serve his community now because he has a dog, he can go places alone, he just really doesn't have another human with him," Lu said.

Project Heal said the recently-signed PAWS Act is great news.

"The little miracles that they create, a little miracle here and a little miracle there that changes a person's day and makes it better. The funding will help grow the notoriety of what these dogs do to help wounded veterans," said co-founder Dale Picard.

As part of the PAWS Act, the VA will likely pick four or five organizations nationwide to help kick start the effort and get more dogs to veterans. Project Heal said they'd be honored if they were picked but either way, they're just happy their mission is getting some well-deserved attention.

For more information about Educated Canines Assisting With Disabilities or to see how you can volunteer, click here.

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