Paws for Peace brings healing to veterans, dogs

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BRUNSWICK — For military veterans who have endured debilitating trauma, and for rescued dogs in need of loving homes, the Paws for Peace program has been forging mutually beneficial relationships for the past seven years.

Alarmed at hearing of the high number of suicide rates by veterans with post-traumatic stress or head injuries, retired Harpswell social worker Joy Johnson founded Embrace a Vet, which offers Paws for Peace, among other programs.

Nickole Libby of Phippsburg is one of more than 100 veterans in that time who have benefited from the initiative. She and her 2-year-old Labrador retriever, Remy, were among those gathered at American Legion Post 20 on Feb. 21, picking up extra dog handling tips a few weeks after graduating from Paws’ 16-week fall program.

“She’s my constant companion,” Libby said. “She’s with me, she can read my body language, she knows when I’m getting upset. She tries to distract me, and that’s what she’s supposed to do, is kind of interrupt my behavior. She tries to snap me out of whatever’s amping up my anxiety, and redirect me, and she does really well at that.”

Remy has helped Libby discover much about herself – that she has the ability to teach a dog the lessons they’ve learned through Paws for Peace, for example.

About half the veterans already have a dog they’d like to be considered for the training program. Libby, who got Remy in late 2016 at the age of 8 weeks, was one of those people.

Having served six years until 2005 as a security forces member in the Air Force,  Libby has since been working through PTSD with a therapist at the Togus VA medical center and was encouraged to check out what Embrace a Vet offered.

“I was kind of hesitant, because I was nervous myself,” Libby recalled. “I didn’t want another dog if my dogs didn’t make it through the screening.”

But Remy proved herself able and eager to be trained and entered the fall class with Libby. “I think her eyes are glued to me half the time; it doesn’t matter if we’re here or home, she’s very focused on me,” Libby said with a chuckle. “And she’s done wonderfully.”

Paws for Peace “is more than just learning how to train my dog to be a service dog for me,” Libby said. “Being around other veterans is therapy in and of itself. The camaraderie, just knowing that everybody has the same thing, but it’s different. Kind of that feeling of belonging again.”

Training teams

For those veterans without a dog to bring to the program, the Paws for Peace team has selected homeless canines from shelters and rescue organizations that would make a good live-at-home match. Just like Libby and Remy, they work together with professional dog trainers, such as Tracy Shaw – Embrace a Vet’s executive director – and other Paws for Peace program alumni called “Battle Buddies,” to forge peer partnerships.

The ideal canine is 6 to 18 months old, but “I’m not one to turn away a dog that is eager to work, or a veteran that’s eager to learn,” Shaw noted.

Among the program’s newest puppies is Scout, a nearly 2-year-old jagdterrier – also known as the German Hunt Terrier – that Shaw adopted last week from Midcoast Humane Society.

“He will go to a veteran that will participate, whether it’s in our spring class or our fall class,” Shaw said. “We’ll make sure that he’s ready to go,” and knows the basics, such as leash skills and crate training, in order to help the veteran get a head start on training, she added.

Paws for Peace’s spring session is full, but 10-12 students are sought for the fall program. Those interested in taking part, or donating to the initiative, can contact Shaw at 449-9149 or through embraceavet.org.

With Remy, “it was great to be able to have a few tips, to feel like you could start and not be like, super overwhelmed,” Libby said.

Training includes the basic commands of sit and lay down, staying in position, being able to enter and exit a building and vehicle politely and safely. Veterans are trained to master control over their dogs and ensure their good behavior around people, particularly in crowded, sensory-trigger-packed places like a shopping mall or festival.

“The dogs really have to just ignore their surroundings and work for their handler,” Shaw said.

Maintaining the dogs’ exercise and proper diet are also key, she added.

Peaceful pals

The program is free, thanks to partnerships within the community such as the Brunswick Post – which offers space to the initiative – and to donations such as those from Topsham’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2197, whose recent $250 gift was matched by a grant from the national VFW.

Embrace a Vet has about 100 volunteers, and Shaw is the only employee. Growing up with two blind aunts who had seeing-eye dogs, she has been training dogs for more than 25 years, having also worked in a military dog program.

There are working dogs like police K-9s, and service dogs who aid those with physical and mental impairments, Shaw explained.

“We try to identify No. 1 … with our veterans, what are you looking for, for that dog to do for you,” she said.

In Libby’s case, it’s helping with anxiety. It could be getting into a veteran’s personal space, interrupting a trauma-reflected behavior and providing comfort, or helping someone with space issues as they navigate through a crowded department store aisle.

One veteran at Feb. 21’s class spoke of how his dog sleeps with him and provides a peaceful diversion when he awakens from violent nightmares.

“So now the focus is no longer the nightmare, and now it’s ‘oh, the dog’s right here,'” Shaw said.

Such situations “might never be perfect, but it’s OK,” she noted. They have a constant companion to help them face each obstacle “and they can go through it.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 780-9085 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Tracy Shaw, left, is executive director of Embrace a Vet, whose Paws for Peace program pairs veterans with therapy dogs. Those dogs often come from shelters, although Nickole Libby, right, brought her own Labrador retriever, Remy, to the program.

Embrace a Vet Executive Director Tracy Shaw smiles as she carries her jagdterrier, Scout, during a Paws for Peace training session for veterans and their dogs Feb. 21 at American Legion Post 20 in Brunswick.

Jerry Gochie is an Army veteran from Waterboro who is part of Embrace a Vet’s Paws for Peace program. He rewards Gracie, his dog, with a treat during a training session Feb. 21 in Brunswick.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.