KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Service dogs are invaluable for veterans who have physical disabilities. Now dogs are working with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. From member station KERA, Lauren Silverman reports that the animals have been so successful that trainers can't keep up with the demand.
LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: At a warehouse near Dallas, black lab Papi tugs on a rope to open a fridge and passes his trainer a plastic water bottle with his mouth.
CHERYL WOOLNOUGH: Yes, good job. Close it.
SILVERMAN: Cheryl Woolnough is training director at Patriot PAWS, a nonprofit that provides service dogs to disabled veterans. She's taught Papi to pick up items you drop...
WOOLNOUGH: ...Uh oh...
SILVERMAN: ...Open and close drawers...
WOOLNOUGH: ...Good job, push...
SILVERMAN: ...Even get the phone for an emergency call. In all, the dogs learn 65 commands. Those that help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder learn extra tricks, like how to sweep a house for intruders.
WOOLNOUGH: We teach them something called perimeter, where they go into the house and they check - they just touch all the doors and all the windows.
SILVERMAN: These dogs also know how to create personal space for a veteran by stepping in front or behind the owner to block people from approaching. Terri Stringer of Patriot PAWS says most veterans who apply for a service dog have PTSD, often on top of physical disabilities.
TERRI STRINGER: We have 100 veterans on our waiting list waiting for dogs, so we have to get more dogs.
SILVERMAN: She stands in a field where they'll build dozens of kennels in 2016. The training process is complex.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
SILVERMAN: It starts with puppies, often labs, retrievers, poodles or doodles. The little guys get their shots and learn simple commands first. Then they go either to a puppy raiser who teaches them to behave in public places, or the dogs go to prison - seriously. Stringer calls it the big doghouse.
STRINGER: Prison is where they get their hardcore training. They're with the inmates 24 hours a day.
SILVERMAN: The inmates teach the dogs dozens of commands. Patriot PAWS relies on three Texas prisons for the type of intensive training the dogs need to be paired with veterans. It takes more than two years and costs about $30,000 each. The few veterans lucky enough to make it to the top of the list each year get dogs at no charge.
JAY SPRINGSTEAD: A service dog for post-traumatic stress can actually help you get out into the public and regain some of that independence that you've lost.
SILVERMAN: Jay Springstead, who lives outside of Dallas, still has nightmares from combat in Vietnam 40 years ago. He started volunteering at Patriot PAWS after his youngest son took his own life.
SPRINGSTEAD: Both my sons were Iraqi combat veterans. My youngest one had severe post-traumatic stress, so I'm very familiar with the symptoms. And I also know how important dogs are to anyone's recovery.
SILVERMAN: Springstead and many others are frustrated with the Department of Veterans Affairs for not providing financial assistance to veterans who use service dogs to cope with PTSD. It's a complaint Patricia Dorn, director of VA Rehabilitation Research and Development in Washington, has heard repeatedly.
PATRICIA DORN: So we understand veterans are not happy with the agency and that we're not just providing this benefit.
SILVERMAN: Dorn says they've never provided it because there's never been a definitive study, which they're doing now and hope to complete in three years. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas.
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