If you are a dog person, you understand this: the way it looks at you, calms you, understands you. How a dog can make you laugh. How steadfast and loyal it is.
You understand it is an animal, separate and unique as a canine is, and yet, how it experiences a range of emotions as clearly as you or I do.
And maybe that’s a small part of the reason they fit us so well. Maybe those are some of the reasons, too, that dogs are so well-suited to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments.
A nonprofit called Pets for Vets helps to match dogs (or cats) to veterans as companion animals. (Companion animals are different than service dogs, which are trained working animals versus pets.)
“It’s definitely one of the best decisions I ever made,” said Russell Albrycht, a former Army combat medic who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Albrycht, of Meriden, was paired with Tink, a 4-year-old Terrier mix, in late 2015. All of about 23 pounds, Tink has evolved into a cuddler who also likes to go for walks around the block and jumps around the living room before rolling over for a belly rub when Albrycht comes home from work.
“She’s always happy to see me at the end of the day, and that’s definitely helped a lot when I’ve had some bad days, long days, whatever at work,” said Albrycht, who works in case management at the VA in West Haven.
“I know that she’s waiting for me and is completely judgment-free. If I’m having a bad day or something like that, she doesn’t ask questions; she’s just there to cheer me up. I can definitely tell that she’s helping me to slow down a little bit, because I’m always very go-go-go.”
Albrycht connected with Tink through the Ridgefield chapter of Pets for Vets, which operates out of of the Ridgefield Operation for Animal Rescue, or ROAR.
Of the approximately 35 chapters nationwide, Pets for Vets-ROAR is one of about seven “shelter chapters,” said Didi Tulloch, Chapter Director.
ROAR is a very small chapter, a benefit in that staff and volunteers know the animals “inside and out,” Tulloch said.
After a veteran fills out an application, Pets for Vets meets them at a neutral location, along with a trainer. They ask the veteran questions to understand them, their lifestyle, families, any limitations they have and the like. There is also a home visit.
The organization chooses the animal and wants to ensure the match is a good one. It also wants to make sure the veteran is ready for a dog.
In that vein, the process is deliberate and takes at least a couple of months. After the trainer chooses a dog, it is put into foster care for 4-6 weeks while the trainer works with it and Pets for Vets determines that the dog is indeed suitable.
“We can get a dog in a heartbeat,” Tulloch said. “Getting a dog that has the right disposition, that’s the harder part.”
ROAR was the first chapter in Connecticut, Tulloch said. Its reach is within an hour of Ridgefield, which allows trainers to work with dogs and for the organization to be able to consistently help veterans.
New chapters open regularly, and Tulloch hopes they will eventually cover the entire state.
“There’s such a need in Connecticut, and especially because of the naval base,” Tulloch said. “We have a couple of veterans who are just waiting.”
Albrycht, 37, said a dog provides him companionship and is non-judgmental. He has undergone treatment for PTSD and also learned transcendental meditation, he said. Tink is an extra, and unique, component in his therapies.
“It’s also, just knowing I’m responsible for somebody else,” he said. “Sometimes, she’s probably helped me to get out and move because I know I have to take her for a walk or whatever. She’s just always in a happy mood.”
And while she isn’t a service dog, Tink has learned to read her owner and the two have bonded.
“A few months ago, maybe in February, I started to have a little bit of an anxiety attack and she came in from the other room and she sat next to me,” Albrycht said. “Yeah, that was nice.”
In Hamden, Carol, an Air Force veteran who was in charge of Casualty Operations, was matched in January with Abigail, a 3-year-old Terrier mix who follows her owner in and out of rooms.
While Pets for Vets ultimately makes the match, a veteran can provide some input. For Carol, who asked that her last name not be used because of the stigma she said is still prevalent, it was important to have a smaller dog who would be adaptable to varying degrees of exercise.
“Sometimes I can go for long walks, over an hour, hour and a half,” she said. “And then some days I’m just not able to get out. And either way, she’s happy. She just goes with the flow.”
Carol said she spends about 15 hours a week in appointments at the West Haven campus of the VA. She is 30 years old and rattles off a list of conditions typically attributed to people more than twice her age.
It started with a stroke in 2015, then three blood clots that left her bedridden and unable to work for a year.
She has Polymyositis, which is an inflammatory disease causing muscle weakness. Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease, an autoimmune disorder. Pulmonary vascular disease, high blood pressure, cataracts in both eyes, tendinitis in the left wrist, and upper airway resistance disorder. Not to mention PTSD.
“So it just seemed like, from that one incident, everything just snowballed downhill,” said Carol, who said she used to ride her bike to and from work and run 35 miles a week while training for a marathon. “I went from being really active and healthy to not recognizing myself or my life anymore. Things changed really quickly.”
She and her doctors don’t understand why this has happened, though Carol said she’s heard from other veterans that at least a couple of her medical issues have been linked to exposure to burn pits.
While in the Middle East, Carol said she lived in a tent city near a burn pit, which the military uses to destroy waste, including parts of buildings, bodies, and even chemicals like asbestos.
Carol said he knew the benefit of having a dog and had heard from other veterans that it made a difference for them. During a one-week hospitalization last June, she said, she started thinking about it.
“I hit a real, real low point … I was so overwhelmed and depressed,” she said. “I just wanted something, a bright spot.”
Someone in the mental health clinic of the VA told Carol about Pets for Vets, gave her a pamphlet, and the process began.
“She’s always around,” Carol said of Abigail. “It really makes the lows not as low. I’ve had a couple of really bad days where she’ll just walk up to me and look at me like, ‘I know,’ and lay her head on me. She’s very supportive. It’s like she tries to absorb all of the negative energy.”
Carol is now working 15 to 20 hours a week mentoring at-risk youths, and she teaches a reading advancement program. She said she is also pursuing a PhD and plans to go into social work. There aren’t many minority women social workers who have been in combat, after all.
As for Albrycht, he’s hoping to make a job move to the Newington VA, which would mean a much shorter drive. And more time to spend with Tink.
“I would say it’s like bringing my life into color instead of black and white, having her,” he said.
For more information, visit PetsForVets.com or www.petsforvets.com/roar-ridgefield-ct.