October is National Disability Awareness Month and this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Buffalo District had the great fortune of hosting Dog Tags Niagara for a lunch and learn program at the District reservation.
The Dog Tags team exemplifies how a group of volunteers, both veterans and civilians, saw a need and stepped in to come up with a simple yet successful solution. The group pairs veterans dealing with stress, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder – common effects of serving in combat – with shelter dogs who need training and socialization in order to become more adoptable. Taking advantage of the unique bond between humans and animals to help heal both veterans and animals, Dog Tags has built a cadre of success stories that they gladly shared with the USACE audience.
Dog Tags Niagara is based out of the Niagara County SPCA. Referrals are made to the program by the area Veterans Courts, the VA Hospital, and the Veterans One-Stop Center.
According to Joe Ruszala, a Vietnam veteran and member of Dog Tags Niagara from its inception, “Many shelter dogs are pitbulls, and pitbulls are the most misunderstood dogs around. However, pitbulls and veterans share many commonalities: they are misunderstood, rejected by society and don’t fit in.”
Joe points out that frequently, veterans reentering the community after serving also are having difficulty with adjusting to life after serving.
Joe broke it down for the audience: “Let me give you an example. You take a pitbull. He is chained under a tree. He experiences nothing good; only bad. That’s all he’s ever known his entire life. It’s his normal. Take him out of there, put him in a shelter and adopt him out to a home and he’ll have a difficult time adjusting to home life because that’s not the normal he knows. Same thing with our veterans trying to reintegrate into the community: it’s not the normal that they know after serving overseas.”
According to the Dog Tags volunteers, if a veteran is disengaged socially, angry, doesn’t feel like he/she fits in - working with the dog provides a way of fitting in and things start to change for the veteran. Joe points out veterans working with the dogs find it has medical benefits of reducing blood pressure, depression, and anxiety. Joe says, working with the dogs drop the veteran’s anxiety level to a level that he can think and make good decisions.
“Dog Tags gives veterans a purpose, a reason to get up in the morning,” said Joe.
On the other end of the leash, they have found that the dogs that were foundering in the shelter work with the veterans to result in better-adjusted dogs who are trained and ready for a home.
The Dog Tags volunteers caution that the program is not about walking dogs but instead, they are actually doing behavior modification to flip the dog’s behavior and in doing so, the veterans are healing along with the dogs. Joe, a talented photographer, showed a number of his photographs featuring a veteran and a shelter dog, and told the story about every photograph. He talked about the experiences of each veteran, and told of their work with the dog and the successful adoption story for the dog. The photographs and the stories frequently evoked an emotional response within the members of the audience.
Several Dog Tags volunteers spoke about their own personal experiences, openly sharing what had brought them to Dog Tags, and how working with Dog Tags Niagara changed their lives.
According to one volunteer, “Dog Tags gives a sense of camaraderie, a sense of family. We don’t have to talk about what we experienced: we know every single one of us understands what each has gone through and we have each other’s backs.”
Another volunteer remarked that while it might be hard to relate to lifelong friends after returning from serving, at Dog Tags, he finds people who understand and he is comfortable and has a support system.
Working in the Dog Tags program allows someone to experience trust and purpose and the Dog Tag team firmly believes it can be yet one more tool in the VA’s toolbox (in addition to therapy and medication); it is a way to accomplish self-help and build confidence. With the success that it has built in western New York, Dog Tags Niagara is looking for opportunities to expand the program into other areas and help other shelters/veterans get their own Dog Tags Programs up and running.
For more information, you can visit Dog Tags Niagara on Facebook or go to http://www.niagaraspca.org/dog-tags-niagara.html