Buster’s owners did not want him because he kept running away. So they dumped him at a shelter.
Today, the 3-year-old Labrador Retriever mix still specializes in escapes: He helps a war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) escape from bad memories through a program called Paws of Freedom. The program is unique because the dogs receive their first training from prison inmates from another program, called Prison Pups N Pals.
“The dogs trained by Prison Pups N Pals are given a second chance, which is something a lot of people can relate to, including veterans,” says Paws of Freedom creator Jennifer Muni-Sathoff. “These dogs sometimes have a traumatic history. For the veterans receiving the dogs, there may be common ground.”
The dogs live with inmates for seven weeks, learning basic obedience skills through daily classes with kennel club volunteers. The dogs are much more adoptable upon graduation. (Prison Pups N Pals has a 100 percent adoption rate!) The inmates benefit by having a sense of responsibility and learning animal-care skills that could help them find future employment.
Like Buster, Busch was surrendered to the shelter. Today, he lives with Navy combat veteran Jose Flores-Riutort, who calls the dog “the best friend I ever had.”
“He’s a good cuddle buddy, always paying attention to me and he does his job,” Flores-Riutort says. “When I get angry, he gets my attention. He jumps up or puts his paw on me to distract me, and it helps remind me that I’m no longer in the military.”
The Veterans Administration mental health department refers veterans to Paws of Freedom. They must have expressed interest in a dog and also have symptoms of mild to moderate PTSD.
Muni-Sathoff stresses that someone with severe symptoms would be referred to a certified service-dog agency. The Paws of Freedom dogs are companions—not service dogs.
Most people think of PTSD victims as having had recent combat experiences, but the symptoms can be long-lasting. For example, William Van Dyke is a Vietnam War veteran. In May, Truex, a happy black-and-white dog, joined the Van Dyke household and has become his best boating buddy.
“I knew it would help me, but I had no idea what a difference a dog would make,” Van Dyke says. “All my friends are asking why I’m so happy, and I tell them I have a dog.”
This story first appeared in AKC Family Dog magazine.