Written by Rebekah Dare Guin
Video by Katie Kamin
When traumatic stress-induced dreams disturb the sleep of Nicholas Saunders, a small paw lands on the middle of his chest to rouse him. Saunders’ full-time caregiver, a beagle named Winston, has sensed his symptoms and has a job to do.
“Sometimes it gets really bad,” Saunders, a disabled military veteran, said, “and if I didn’t have Winston, there is a good chance that I would not be sitting here today.”
Winston and Saunders found each other through the nonprofit Vets to Vets.
The organization was founded on the principle that veterinarians and veterans should work as closely as their names suggest. Vets to Vets pairs abandoned shelter dogs with disabled military veterans and trains both to help ease the burden of those disabilities.
“He is probably the cutest little dog you have ever seen, and he picked me. He saw me, I saw him, and I was like ‘Yep, I know it is going to work’,” he said.
The Durham-based organization is a perfect fit for the state. North Carolina has tens of thousands of disabled military veterans. It also has a high population of shelter dogs that are being euthanized. Dr. Terry Morris, the executive director of Vets to Vets United, saw a collaborative solution to what many saw as two independent problems.
“I am a veterinarian because I love animals,” Morris said, “but my other passion is helping people.”
Early on, Morris was faced with a choice. Should she train dogs from breeders and pet stores, or should she work with abandoned animals with an unknown history and background?
“We want to use shelter dogs because North Carolina has the highest euthanasia rate in the country at our shelters,” Morris said. “We have perfectly healthy animals that are euthanized due to overcrowding. We have been able to find beautiful animals who are willing to learn, able to learn, and we can partner them.”
Britney, a service dog Morris trained, pranced around the room eager to show off her skills. She scooped items off the floor, removed shoes and socks, and closed doors when asked. After her first attempt at closing the door did not result in a satisfying enough clicking sound, she nudged the door with her nose as if to say “Let me try again. I know I can do better.”
Playfully yapping away with Britney was a new addition to the Vets to Vets family, Tank. A name has never suited a dog better than it did this massive ball of black fur and muscle who came charging into the room ready to plow over anything that stood in his way. The contrast between Tank and Britney was stark, but Morris was confident that, soon, he would be qualified to wear a vest.
“The veteran is saving the animal, and the animal is helping, and in many cases saving, the veteran’s life,” Morris said.
Morris described what it is like to see vets go about their daily lives or do simple things such as watch a child’s soccer game or walk in the park.
“The enjoyment you get from seeing a veteran smile and a pup smile at the same time is priceless,” she said.
Morris grew up a military brat. Her father died in a military accident when she was only 3, and she said she has seen firsthand the struggles of military life.
“The veteran suicide rate is 22 per day,” Morris said, “but there is an uncounted number of family members who are also committing suicide because they don’t know how they fit into the picture anymore. Their loved one comes back a totally different person, and it can be really hard to handle. The animals are for the whole family. It is a beautiful thing to see a family come together and communicate again.”
After completing her education and moving to North Carolina, she was compelled to learn more about the military community that surrounded her.
“When I did the research, there were over 800,000 veterans here in North Carolina, and 15,000 right here in Durham, and we did not have an organization that was training and partnering animals with veterans to help with their physical and emotional disabilities,” she said.
Although the UNC Carolina Population Center reports that number being closer to 700,000, a study conducted by Pew Research lists North Carolina as having the third largest concentration of disabled veterans per capita.
This inspired her to create a place that could give both pups and vets a second chance. After a long screening process of both the dog and veteran, Morris works with the dogs to help get them certified as emotional support, therapy or service animals.
When she spoke of the dogs graduating and becoming certified, she said it with the same pride as any PTA mom in a minivan. The first graduation, which took place last July, certified 10 veteran and pup teams. Currently, there are 16 teams in various stages of training in the program.
“There is a saying in the program that through Vets to Vets, two lives are saved — his and mine,” Paul Shuping, a veteran from Raleigh who was part of the organization, said of his dog Abe.
Shuping said that in addition to aiding with his physical limitations, Abe has aided with his depression.
“It is a struggle sometimes to get up and keep going,” Shuping said, “but with him in my life, I have to. He relies on me.”
Shuping is not the only one who believes that his life was saved through this program. Saunders, who is a former member of the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard, shared one of hardest days of his life after being medically retired for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and physical injury.
“I walked into the VA, and I gave them the worst ultimatum you could hear from anybody,” Saunders said. “I told them either you get me help, or you can find a body bag.”
It was through the VA that he was given a phone number for an organization that could pair him with a service animal. It was then that he met his beagle, Winston.
Saunders and Winston live in Jacksonville, N.C., and they made a trek to Durham every week for nearly two years in order to receive training from Morris, where they learned basic obedience, assistive skills for physical limitation and strategies to aid Saunders’ PTSD. Winston knows, sometimes before Saunders, when the stress is becoming overwhelming, when depression is taking hold, or when he is experiencing traumatic flashbacks.
With a paw on his body, a nudge or a cuddle, Winston can alert Saunders of his symptoms before they become too overwhelming.
“I had to drive two and a half hours each way just to do the training,” Saunders said, “and, literally, it was worth everything that I did.”
Morris said that when treating vets, it was critical to look beyond the physical limitations a service animal could mitigate.
“There are a number of vets who would not leave the house due to PTSD,” Morris said. “It can become very, very difficult to go out in crowded places to go to a mall or see a movie or a football game or anything. Many veterans say that they are now able to come out of the house, even if it is just driving to class. They interact with other veterans who are in the program who are experiencing some of the same issues that they are. They say that there is a comradery here. It is like a family. They are able to come and talk about things that they have experienced together. It is a brother-sisterhood for them.”
Kelvin Clark, a licensed professional counselor and marriage and family therapist, said that many of his patients suffer from PTSD and are looking for coping mechanisms to get them through their day-to-day life.
“Symptom reduction is a beautiful thing,” Clark said. “Having fewer flashbacks or being able to go into a setting that causes stresses and being able to remain calm can be challenging. Whatever kind of therapy that gets those results is a good thing. I don’t see PTSD ever reducing as far as instances. I see it being better treated and managed. We live in a violent society.”
For Saunders, symptom reduction has been the primary goal of his training with Winston. He is working toward a master’s degree in business through an online program. Of course, he still has bad days like the one that propelled him into the VA, but his pup is always by his side.
Winston has observed Saunders long enough that he can see his emotional and mental demons coming, and he uses practiced coping strategies to chase off depression, stress, nightmares and suicidal thoughts like most dogs chase off cats and squirrels.
“He will sit next to me or hit me with his paw,” he said. “He looks at me and lets me know that he is keeping me safe and that I have nothing to worry about.”
Many vets credit Morris with their well-being, but she believes that a lot of the credit should be given back to the dogs and the community at-large.
Although she keeps the cost as low as she can, she says the cost is about $2,500 a year per team to train the animals for the veterans. She said that these number are remarkably low as they are excluding administrative costs, the labor of volunteers, and many instances where equipment and care are donated.
“We could not do this without our community coming together to support us,” she said. “It is our lifeline.”
Just as the community is funding her efforts, Morris tries to give back with the aid of her certified therapy teams.
“We go out, and we visit seniors at senior centers,” she said. “We go out, and we visit veterans who are at the VA medical center, hospice or in the CLC unit – the community living care unit, which is veterans who are sick and cannot come home yet. We have a great time sharing the blessing that we have with animal assisted care with the community.”
The organization is expanding rapidly. With over 40 names on the organization’s waiting list, it is becoming hard to keep up with the demand.
Saunders believes he knows the reason why Vets to Vets is growing so quickly. Morris’ passion for people shows through when she works with vets like him. He says she does not give the pairs only one chance for success. If there is a way to make the pairing a reality, she will see the training through.
“Even if it isn’t working as good as she wants,” he said, “she is not going to turn her back on people. No matter what happens, she is okay with that.”