Shared from the 12/22/2016 Coastal Journal eEdition

Paws for Peace

Embrace a Vet pairs veterans with rescue dogs


Contributed photo

Paws for Peace partners, from left, Xena and Helaina Lake, Mike Wedge and Sis, Eli Ranquist and Bella, and Alan Johnston and Gypsy.


MIDCOAST — For most, the holiday season is all about meeting up with family, picking gifts, and enjoying the sights and sounds of the season.

For veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or a traumatic brain injury, the holidays can be a very different experience. Going out in public can be a source of anxiety, eating in a restaurant means sitting with a back to the wall and an eye on the door.

Maine has the third highest per capita number of veterans in the country, and one of the highest ratio of veterans who served in the Gulf War, Iraq, and/or Afghanistan. With an estimated 25 to 40 percent of post 9/11 veterans experiencing some sort of psychological trauma, and with veterans having significantly higher suicide rates, there often isn’t enough treatment to make a significant difference.

That’s where Embrace a Vet comes in. Started by the late Joy Johnson, the program brings together volunteers with experience in the medical field and veterans who need help. One of its newest programs, Paws for Peace, gives veterans a service dog they train themselves.

“We match a veteran with PTSD or TBI living in Maine with a rescue dog from a shelter or other rescue organizations, or occasionally a breeder will donate a dog,” said Deborah Farnham, one of the organization’s earliest members. “We put them both through 16 weeks of training.”

Veterans, who go through an interview process to determine their eligibility, learn alongside their future service animal and gain a best friend in the process.

That companionship is invaluable to program graduates.

“Many of these veterans have isolated themselves, which is very common with PTSD; they don’t leave their homes unless they absolutely have to, and then it’s building themselves up for a couple of days to leave and go to the grocery store,” said Farnham. “It gives them more comfort in leaving the house and in being in public.”

The dogs can be trained to do a whole range of tasks. Some will be trained to remind their owner to take pills. Others will help veterans who struggle with dropping things by being trained to pick them up and give them to their owner. Many will learn how to recognize the signs of an anxiety attack, and will comfort the person.

“Very quickly, the dog knows what the veteran needs before the veteran knows,” said Farnham. “Even from a different part of the house, dogs can come running to comfort a veteran.”

Mike Wedge is a recent graduate of the program. A veteran of the Navy, he said his dog, “Sis,” has helped him tremendously.

“To be able to go places, and have that dog in tune with me, it’s a great program,” said Wedge. “To have that freedom to go to a restaurant, or go to church, to have little Sis with me to protect me and understand when I’m upset or having flashbacks. To go that extra mile for me, that’s all I can say.”

Wedge said Sis has given him the freedom to leave his house and go places that he never would have before going through the program.

“To go to a restaurant and not have my back towards a wall, to sit down with my back against the crowd and other patrons and not have that feeling. It’s so relieving,” he said. “My wife has seen the improvements over the months getting little Sis, and she is so happy for us and the program and the people who do this.” In addition to being comfortable in public, Wedge said he’s using his time with Sis to promote the program to others who may need it. “People ask me about the program, and I tell them from A to Z, everybody. I pray to God that these people will tell a loved one, a husband a boyfriend, or a son or daughter, to go through the program. It’ll all be worth the wait when you graduate and you get that certificate.” While not everyone is a match for the program, many still benefit, said Farnham. “We have had some veterans who are fine the first eight weeks in the classroom setting, but once we start going out in public ... Some of them have isolated themselves for so many years, it’s so stressful for them to be in that situation, that stress just travels right down the leash to the dog,” she said. “A few do not graduate, but they still benefit from the program.”

To learn more about Embrace a Vet, and the Paws for Peace program, or to learn how to donate to its efforts, visit

“ Very quickly, the dog knows what the veteran needs before the veteran knows.”
— Deborah Farnham, Paws for Peace

See this article in the e-Edition Here