Cambrian: Opinion

PTSD treatment has gone to the dogs, thankfully

Rosa Mendoza, with a pup in training, demonstrates a calming technique used by the dog when a veteran begins to feel anxiety or anger.
Rosa Mendoza, with a pup in training, demonstrates a calming technique used by the dog when a veteran begins to feel anxiety or anger.

Regardless of what side of the political fence that you favor, it’s safe to assume that we all care for our veterans. And when we read the statistics that about 20 veterans commit suicide per day, or that between 11 to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans alone, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder in any given year, and that about 48,000 homeless persons a night are veterans, it brings reason for a cause.

To meet this wide range of challenges, two Cayucos men, Gill Ingleheart and Dick Mellinger, have each given about 1,700 volunteer hours during their first year of organizing Paws for a Cause, a new 501(c)3.

Ingleheart met a veteran with PTSD at a district Kiwanis conference. The veteran relied on his specially trained dog to sense when he was becoming overanxious and to remind him to take his medications. Ingelheart was so impressed that he made a presentation at a Cayucos Rotary meeting, then brought in Mellinger.

Mellinger already worked with Woods Humane Society on a Pets for Vets program. It was a perfect match.

“We have both put heads and hearts into this,” Ingelheart said.

They teamed up with New Life K9s, a San Luis Obispo nonprofit that trains service dogs for veterans with PTSD.

The service dogs, according the New Life K9s’ website, are trained to “prevent suicides, enrich relationships, reduce homelessness, save community resources and decrease the need for medications.”

Nicole Hern, director of training and Rosa Mendoza, service dog trainer, visited San Simeon recently to demonstrate these service dogs’ unique training and skills as “warrior support dogs.”

“The tasks that service dogs can perform to meet the needs of a veteran with PTSD can include waking him up from a nightmare and even turning on lights, reminding him to take medications on time (even bringing the medication to the person), bark on command to warn off a potentially threatening stranger, and helps to decrease levels of anxiety. Many veterans take medications that affect their balance. A service dog can assist with balance by performing a ‘brace’ command in which the veteran can use the dog’s body to steady himself,” the website explains.

We have both put heads and hearts into this.

Gill Ingelheart of Cayucos, Paws for a Cause volunteer

It’s impressive to see these dogs in action.

Paws for a Cause is spreading throughout San Luis Obispo County, with a fundraising effort just starting in Cambria, where Mellinger joined Cambria Rotary.

Ingleheart shared his vision with me.

The goal, he said, is to spread this nonprofit to counties throughout California.

He said he also hopes to make available through Cuesta College a two-year course in cynology (study of canines) that prisoners who volunteer to train the service dogs with New Life K9s can take online and leave prison with an Associate of Arts degree in cynology.

Currently, 15 inmates at California Men’s Colony are training eight puppies for service to veterans with PTSD, Ingleheart said. Four local veterans now have these specially trained service dogs, two of them through Paws for a Cause. It takes several years of training and maturity before the dog is ready to serve a veteran. Once a dog is matched to a veteran, then the veteran is trained to work with the dog. Ingleheart said about five to seven veterans are waiting for one of these specialized dogs. Veterans are not charged for the dog. It costs about $15,000 for each graduated dog.

People interested in learning more or applying for a service dog can contact Ingleheart or Mellinger at www.Paws

When the New Life K9s were in San Simeon during a recent Cambria Newcomers Club luncheon, Mendoza — working with a golden Lab pup who is in training at CMC — showed some of the skills the pup has already acquired, including how to calm a veteran when anxiety from PTSD strikes.

The pup stretched out and placed its head on Mendoza’s shoulder and held it there until commanded to do differently. A collective “awww” ran through the room.

It was clear that regardless of how anyone feels about politics and war, veterans and the right service dog to help them heal is something everyone could agree upon.

Charmaine Coimbra’s column appears the fourth Thursday of each month and is special to The Cambrian.