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A new 'leash' on life: Government program will train dogs for veterans with PTSD

As many as 20 veterans out of 100 from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have PTSD, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Bobbi keeps her soft brown eyes on Becca Stephens while patrolling the aisles of a grocery store, ever-vigilant of potential threats. She walks slightly behind, making sure no one can get the jump on the person she is there to protect.

Once the mission is over, Bobbi will head home, get a nice treat and play with her favorite toy, a bright orange traffic cone.

Bobbi is a service dog who has been by Stephens' side for the last three years. The golden Labrador is specially trained to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, like Stephens of Clearwater, Florida.

Stephens is a 36-year-old combat veteran who served in Basra, Iraq, from 2009 to 2010, working on radio equipment for her unit. She was diagnosed with PTSD in 2011.

“She just always has my back, and she knows” when Stephens needs reassurance, the veteran told NBC News.

Becca Stephens comforting — and being comforted by — her service dog, Bobbi.K9s for Warriors

This month, Congress passed a bipartisan bill — the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers, or PAWS, for Veterans Therapy Act — to help connect veterans with their own service dogs. The bill is now headed to the desk of dog-lover President Joe Biden, who is expected to sign it.

At that point, the Department of Veterans Affairs would work with organizations like K9s for Warriors, a Florida nonprofit organization that provides service dogs to veterans, which is where Stephens trained with Bobbi. The five-year program would take effect Jan. 1, 2022, said Rory Diamond, CEO of K9s for Warriors.

“We’re encouraged by the passage of this bill by both houses of Congress as an integral first step in the fight against veteran suicide,” Diamond said.

Of the more than 700 veterans who have been through the K9s for Warriors program, 72 percent had attempted suicide before being paired with their service dogs, Diamond said.

"We're incredibly good at keeping them alive," Diamond said. "So why wouldn't the VA want to be part of that?"

The program comes at a critical time. As many as 20 veterans out of 100 from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have PTSD, according to the VA. The pandemic has caused even more stress for veterans, with calls to the veterans crisis line surging more than 15 percent last year. And experts agree PTSD is underreported.

Veteran suicide continues to plague former service members. From 2005 to 2018, nearly 90,000 veterans have died by suicide, and the number continues to rise, according to the most recent report from the VA.

While Stephens may not have visible injuries, she is still wounded from the tolls of combat. After her deployment to Iraq, she said, she could never relax and always experienced a heightened sense of awareness. Medication prescribed after her PTSD diagnosis didn’t really help her.

“I was constantly having mood swings, you know, very palpable anger towards anything, extremely irritable, I would have nightmares, almost all the time,” she said.

Her PTSD ultimately led to a seven-year drug addiction, she said. Before meeting Bobbi, Stephens said, she contemplated suicide, going so far as to develop a pros and cons list.

"I was sitting on the edge of my bed thinking, you know, 'This is it. I have nothing left at this point,'" she said.

Two things kept her hanging on: the love and support of her girlfriend and the hope of being just weeks away from starting service dog training after being on a waitlist for four months.

At K9s for Warriors camp, Stephens was paired with Bobbi.

“You learn all kinds of things,” she said. “We go into the public. We go to malls. We go to restaurants. We do all the things that I avoided.”

"You do all kinds of things that you've been avoiding," said Becca Stephens, seen here in her car with her service dog, Bobbi.K9s for Warriors

Training a service dog to help someone with PTSD is an immersive program that helps the veteran and dog form a bond. The dog learns to notice signs of anxiety and how to soothe its owner.

“We found that, by and large, the most important and most commonly used task was to calm or comfort anxiety,” said Maggie O’Haire, an associate professor of human-animal interaction at Purdue University who works with K9s for Warriors.

Her research shows service dogs can help reduce the severity of PTSD in veterans. In a 2020 report released by the VA, participants paired with service dogs trained for PTSD had fewer suicidal behaviors and ideations within the first 18 months, compared to people with emotional support animals.

The tasks performed by these specially trained service dogs vary widely and are specific to the owner. One common task is called “lap,” a dog’s version of a weighted blanket.

“It's basically deep pressure therapy for our warriors,” said Air Force veteran Christel Fleming, a trainer at K9s for Warriors. “We want the dog to get up, put its two front limbs across the warrior’s lap and to stay there calmly.”

The dog is taught not to jump up or lick the owner's face.

"Instead of looking at the outside world and being really freaked out about what's going on, they can look at their dog, scratch their dog, love on their dog and calm down," said Air Force veteran Christel Fleming, a K9s for Warriors trainer.K9s for Warriors

“Instead of looking at the outside world and being really freaked out about what's going on, [the veteran] can look at their dog, scratch their dog, love on their dog and calm down,” Fleming said.

The dogs aren’t intended to replace doctor visits or medication. In fact, O’Haire said the animals help their owners get out of the house for treatment appointments.

With Bobbi by her side, Stephens said, she is now three years sober and out in public all the time. She said the dog has given her a new “leash” on life.

“When I started to trust myself and respect myself and treat myself right, she could see that,” Stephens said.