Feature image: Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel / 2014
The Harley Davidson training school operated by MMI in Orlando, Florida is the last place you would ever expect to find someone suffering from PTSD; filled with the raucous noise of rumbling Harley engines, the smell of motor oil, solvents, the clang of tools along with the congested activity of the other Motorcycle Mechanics Institute students sits Zoey, a two year old pit bull mix service dog whose job is to help U.S. Army veteran Paul Aragon cope with his post traumatic stress disorder while he completes his studies at MMI.
After serving 3 full tours as a U.S. Army mechanic in Iraq, Paul retired in 2011 at the rank of Sergeant. While Paul was reluctant to talk about his illness, he did say his PTSD is triggered by large crowds and intense situations.
“I’ve tried therapy, and drugs and they just didn’t work for me”, says Aragon. PTSD is a disorder associated with anxiety and other symptoms, and while PTSD is common among U.S. soldiers anyone can be affected after a traumatic event such as death or serious injury.
“Since 2002 over 240,000 U.S. Soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have received a preliminary PTSD diagnosis after seeking medical treatment from the VA Hospital”, said a Veterans Affairs spokesman.
Paul’s service dog, Zoey has been specifically trained to smell pheromones and react whenever Paul experiences anxiety, fear or anger. Zoey will bark, pull on her leash or jump around on her hind legs in an effort to get Paul to focus on her rather than the negative situation he may be experiencing.
While the U.S. Army does recognize the therapeutic value of the use of service dogs in the treatment of PTSD, their restrictive policy makes it difficult for many veterans to get one, with many being put on large waiting lists.
“Zoey is a Godsend for Paul”, says Gabi Aragon, Paul’s mother. “She is the best thing that has ever happened to him.”
Paul was introduced to Debbie Kandoll by his Doctor. Debbie is a service dog trainer for Mutts Assisting Soldier Heroes or “MASH”. The New Mexico based organization trains dogs from shelters and the dog pound to be service dogs.
It took six months for Debbie to help Paul train Zoey once he had adopted her from a local New Mexico dog pound. “I adopted Zoey quickly when I found out that she would be euthanized soon if no one took her home”. Said Aragon.
The U.S. Army’s policy on the use of service dogs requires that all service dogs be trained by facilities that are accredited by Assistance Dogs International. If the canine is not from an ADI accredited organization, the VA will not reimburse the soldier for any costs associated with the dog’s training, veterinary care and equipment.
With ADI accredited groups and organizations limited to only 32 States, many veterans are forced to do without a service dog or wait on long waiting lists until funds can be raised to the help those veterans desperately in need.
While it can cost upwards of $20,000.00 to train a service dog, Paul only had to pay roughly $450.00, the costs associated with adopting Zoey. There are many groups and organizations such as Wounded Warrior who work full time to raise money to help with the training of service dogs.
“Matching the right service dog with a veteran suffering from PTSD is the most important part of the training process”, says Kandoll. When reflecting on Paul and Zoey, Debbie Kandoll said, “It makes me feel great I was able to help save two lives.”
Paul Aragon graduated from MMI in May 2014 thanks to Zoey, who was in attendance during the graduation ceremony!