Many military veterans who have served in combat areas or other high-stress environments come home and face a new battle in the form of mental health disorders. Dr. Diane Scotland-Coogan, who is an assistant professor in Saint Leo University’s graduate program in social work, took the initiative to launch a nonprofit that pairs vets with furry friends to help them enjoy more fulfilling lives.
In 2013, the licensed counselor of mental health helped establish K9 Partners for Patriots, Inc. Based out of Brooksville, Fla., the 501(c)3 nonprofit is designed for veterans of all ages and eras who have seen minimal benefits from other treatments. Instead of conventional psychotherapy and medication, the organization is a platform for vets to train a dog that will support them emotionally each day.
"Veterans are finding purpose, hope and healing,” Scotland-Coogan says. “We have been a last-ditch effort for many of these individuals. After medication and therapy don’t work, they will ask themselves, ‘What do I do next?’”
From Idea to Reality
The genesis of the organization was the result of a somewhat unexpected partnership.
“I was giving a speech for the Rotary Club on anxiety, and there was a dog trainer there who was speaking about how dogs can help veterans. So, I asked her how things were going, and she said she was seeing some positive results within the vets she was working with. Some of these people couldn’t even get out of their car when they came to her, but they became engaged pretty quickly. She didn’t have a whole lot of money, so we decided to create K9 Partners for Patriots. It was amazing to see how many people wanted this to succeed. It’s been incredible.”
How the Training Works
Military veterans in search of a mental boost enroll in a 19-week program geared toward treating those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI) and military sexual trauma (MST). Participants attend small weekly group sessions with others facing similar struggles, and each veteran learns how to train his or her dog to reap the most reward from having a ‘battle buddy by their side.’
“Some of these veterans have struggled for many years,” she explains. “Now they are actually leaving their houses and reconnecting with family and friends. Many have been able to get off their medication. We’re pretty excited about all of this. We even help veterans’ spouses and children. We offer all of this training and counseling for free.”
The ages of the vets who’ve been through the program range from 20s to 70s, including Vietnam vets through those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Vietnam vets were treated so badly when they came home,” she says. “Younger vets deal with different stressors. However, all the veterans seem to respond to our therapy in a similar way.”
Mastery is a key part of the training and rehabilitation process.
“These days, there’s a trend of treating those with trauma using more holistic approaches, such as rock climbing and other socialization activities. When these people gain a sense of mastery by accomplishing things, they feel better about themselves. You can’t talk someone out of anxiety – you have to prove them out of it.”
While current dog owners are always welcome, the program provides vets who don’t already have a dog with a canine that has been rescued or is from a humane society. The team usually avoids using breeds like Pit bulls and Rottweilers because of their more aggressive temperament. The program covers the cost of the dog, veterinarian bills, training, a leash, a vest and a card that indicates that the dog is a certified emotional support animal.
“The dog is trained to alert the vet about someone coming up behind them or other changing factors in their environment. Overall, these animals help their partners feel more at ease and even sleep better at night.”
She points to oxytosin, a chemical in the brain that produces a good feeling of trust and being at ease, as a hormone that gets released into the body when these vets are successfully connecting with their companions.
“Plus, attachment theory is at play because military members lose their sense of attachment when they come home and are no longer around their fellow servicemembers,” she explains. “Learning to train and bond with a dog can greatly help them regain this sense of trust once they realize the animal is nonthreatening and can actually help them.”
Scotland-Coogan and her team have used part of a local humane society to host their training sessions. There are plans to rent out space in their own building soon.
Support Speaks Volumes
The organization received a grant from the Department of Defense for its first year of operations.
“They’ve actually asked us to expand the program because of what they think of it,” she says. “We’ve seen a statistically significant improvement in our vets in all clinical scales from the first day they join us through the day on which they complete our program.”
In addition to this federal funding, the nonprofit has received donations from The Home Depot, Hilton Hotels, Target, local charities and VFWs.
In August 2017, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis presented K9 Partners for Patriots with the Heroes Among Us Award. The organization also received a Congressional Challenge Coin for outstanding service.
Along with K9 Partners for Patriots, Scotland-Coogan is moving forward with an additional nonprofit that would provide ongoing services. It will help vets through mentoring, job training, advising on education, community service opportunities and exercise by providing a gym.
After developing a research paper with statistical data on how this initiative has specifically helped vets, Scotland-Coogan is putting together a curriculum that she plans to send out around the country to help others offer similar services in their local areas.
Learning & Teaching at Saint Leo
Scotland-Coogan is both a proud alumnus of and professor at Saint Leo University. As a nontraditional student, she attained a bachelor’s degree in social work at the school.
“I loved going back to school because I knew I was finally working toward what I truly love to do,” she confides. “I had previously gone to a small Catholic college that Saint Leo reminds me of in some ways. I really felt close to my professors because of the small class sizes. I’m still in touch with several classmates I had.””
She began teaching at Saint Leo in 2010. Her courses mainly revolve around advanced clinical practices for aspiring mental health professionals or those looking to advance in their careers.
“I love the faculty in our program,” she says. “I’m so proud of how rigorous the coursework is. We do push them a little harder and hold them to a certain standard than you might find elsewhere, but it’s all for their benefit. I love hearing from graduates who tell me they can hear my voice in their head when they’re working with a client.”
She even gave a former student an opportunity to work at K9 Partners for Patriots.
“I hired one of my old students to work at the facility all four days a week that we’re open. He doesn’t have a military background, but he knows how to talk to veterans and how to work with them effectively. They are very accepting of his demeanor.”
Photo credit: The photograph included in this blog post was provided by Diane Scotland-Coogan and is used with permission.