SCOTT SIMON, host:

Unwanted and abandoned dogs fill shelters nationwide, and not many will get a second chance. But in California, a new organization is saving one dog at a time, and in the process helping those who have served their country. Pets for Vets believe that for some veterans who are having a hard time the answer may be a homeless dog.

Gloria Hillard has more from Los Angeles.

GLORIA HILLARD: Like many returning combat veterans, Leif Meisinger still wears a military-style buzz cut. His arms are tapestries of colored ink, including a few tattoos he got in Iraq.

Mr. LEIF MEISINGER (United States Army, Retired): Like the gun ones and...

HILLARD: He smiles and runs a hand over his head. After an IED blast, the 40-year-old former Army gunner says he has a mild traumatic brain injury and a PTSD diagnosis.

Mr. MEISINGER: It was like I was back in Iraq again. Just I was up at night, and I would sleep during the day, and crying spells. And, you know, like oh, wait, whats going on? Im crying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HILLARD: But then, a few months ago, something in his life changed.

Mr. MEISINGER: Where's the toy? Give me the toy. I love this dog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEISINGER: And I've never really been an animal-type person.

(Soundbite of a squeaking toy)

HILLARD: On the floor, the 215 pound soldier is playing a game of fetch with a 10 pound dog named Spyder.

Mr. MEISINGER: It's the greatest thing that ever could have happened to me -getting the dog. Now I'm like a little social butterfly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEISINGER: Whereas before, I was in my house drinking, just dying.

Ms. CLARISSA BLACK (Founder, Pets for Vets): It just changes their lives, like having a best friend.

HILLARD: Clarissa Black is the founder of Pets for Vets. It's an L.A.-based organization that matches shelter dogs like Spyder with veterans like Leif, who are having a hard time re-entering civilian life.

Ms. BLACK: Many of these guys, they talk to their dogs. They tell their dogs things that they could not tell anybody else, even sometimes their therapists. And together they're helping each other heal.

HILLARD: I met up with Black on what she calls the hard part of her job. We're at one of L.A. County's high-kill animal shelters. On this day she's looking for a particular dog for a vet a retriever mix. As if reading her mind, dozens of dogs of all sizes try to get our attention.

Ms. BLACK: It's very hard to walk down and see all the animals, you know, looking at you and knowing that they, you know, they need a home as well.

HILLARD: After volunteering in an animal therapy program at a VA hospital, the 27-year-old certified animal trainer saw a special need and started Pets for Vets. So far she's placed eight dogs since June.

Ms. BLACK: You can see just, you know, the months and years of stress just melt away from the first moment that they see their dog.

HILLARD: She doesn't have much of a budget. A small band of volunteers and donations help cover her expenses to train the dogs as companion animals.

For veterans with special emotional needs, Black, a graduate of Cornell in animal sciences, says she teaches the dogs to recognize things like a panic attack by simulating that behavior herself. She then trains the dog to react with a gentle nudge or kiss.

Mr. RICHARD BEAM (VA Medical Center, Long Beach): It is a very good partner to group therapy or one-on-one therapy. It's a perfect augmentation.

HILLARD: Richard Beam is a spokesman for the VA Medical Center in Long Beach, California, which has referred patients to the Pets for Vets program.

Mr. BEAM: And we've seen some of our veterans really feel connected to something, whereas without that connection to an animal or a pet, they really did feel alone.

HILLARD: That was certainly true for Army veteran Specialist Meisinger, who says he still participates in group therapy at the VA once a week. But he says it's his small dog Spyder that keeps him grounded on the other days.

Mr. MEISINGER: But I'll like be sitting there and I have no idea what I'm thinking. I'm just staring at something, and all of a sudden he like comes up and like starts licking my face. And it's like, oh, whoa; it like pulls me back in to - keeps me from like going to that spot that you don't need to go to.

(Soundbite of bark)

HILLARD: The interview was over. The small dog jumps into the arms of the six foot soldier.

(Soundbite of bark)

Mr. MEISINGER: Good boy.

HILLARD: It was time to go for a walk.

For NPR News, Im Gloria Hillard.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.