MENLO PARK, Calif. — The black Labrador retriever knew something was wrong. He refused to leave the side of Sandro Navarro, repeatedly nuzzling the troubled man, trying to comfort him.
It was the anniversary of that terrible 2003 day in Iraq when Navarro was the first to arrive at a blast scene that killed two friends in his Army unit and severely wounded a third. Somehow, the dog named Jason realized he was distraught.
“It was like he was telling me, ‘I’m going to keep licking your face until you stop feeling down, and I going to make you smile by doing something goofy,’ ” said Navarro, 36.
Some of man’s best friends are playing an innovative role in the VA Palo Alto Men’s Trauma Recovery Program as four-legged therapy for veterans finding their way through the darkness of post-traumatic stress disorder, thanks to Paws for Purple Hearts. The dogs are so perceptive they even will awaken vets from nightmares.
But there’s also a dual purpose to the program. Some of the veterans who come to the VA’s Menlo Park, Calif., campus from around the country for military-related PTSD treatment are helping train the canines to become service dogs for physically disabled vets.
“It’s a reward knowing where Jason will go because there are guys far worse off than I am,” said Navarro, a Southern California native who lives in Tennessee.
At a home in Modesto, Calif., a golden retriever named Venuto is an example of that reward. Veteran William Smith, who uses a wheelchair, said his service dog can pick up loose change and gives him a sense of security. And Smith is gratified knowing that Venuto helped 21 vets in the PTSD trauma program before coming to him.
“I thank God for my dog,” Smith said, “but I also know what he’s meant to so many other people.”
While Paws for Purple Hearts is touted as “veterans helping veterans,” the connecting thread is the canine helper — eager-to-please retrievers who lessen anxiety and depression in PTSD patients as they learn to become service-dog companions.
“It’s like they have a sixth sense about stress,” said Jon Tyson, 27, an Army veteran from North Carolina who served in Iraq, rubbing the tummy of a golden-Lab mix named Krucker. “I’m sure he knows he has a purpose, and it’s to make people like us feel better. It’s unconditional love. When you have a hard time loving yourself, he will love you.”
At any given time, there are about 40 men in the Trauma Recovery Program, and the typical stay is about three months. Working with dogs is strictly optional. Currently there are four dogs being trained at the new Welcome Center on the VA Palo Alto Health Care System’s Menlo Park campus. Each one has two vets who, under the supervision of trainer Sandra Carson, are teaching them 90 commands required for them to work with the physically disabled, such as opening doors and turning lights on and off.
Sometimes the canines, like siblings Jason and Jan, obey. Sometimes they just want to play. Either way, it’s clear how much the vets enjoy being around the affectionate dogs.
“It’s not a cure-all, but the dogs reduce PTSD symptoms in an amazing way,” said Bonnie Bergin, founder of the Bergin University of Canine Studies in Rohnert Park, the Paws for Purple Hearts’ parent organization. “We find sweet, sensitive dogs because the vets like to comfort them. PTSD has taken so much from them, and this program gives them a sense that they can do something in this world.”
A psychological condition that can develop after experiencing the terror of combat, PTSD is a signature disorder of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. It’s estimated between 20 and 30 percent of Americans who have served suffer from it. Symptoms include flashbacks, insomnia, irritability, hyper-vigilance, drug and alcohol abuse, and thoughts of suicide.
Aaron Autler, 28, of Manteca, Calif., who did two tours in Iraq and then struggled with alcohol and substance abuse, said teaching the willful Jan was eye-opening.
“I’ve never had to train anybody, other than Marines,” Autler said. “So it’s taught me patience. It’s therapeutic because sometimes I don’t like being around people. Part of my issues involved never developing relationships. I know isolating is a bad thing, and it’s hard to do with her.”
Training is a small part of a vet’s treatment day. But the dogs are with them constantly, even spending nights in their rooms.
Bonds quickly form. Krucker especially finds his way into hearts. White with hints of gold, Krucker spent much of the fall with Tony Roberge and Toby Luke — vets who had sealed themselves off emotionally.
Krucker, though, wouldn’t stand for that.
“When I talk to Krucker, he understands what I’m saying,” said Roberge, 49, a Navy vet who was homeless before entering the program. “We have conversations all the time. He’s always right there, listening to me, wagging his tail.”
Luke added that Krucker would split time between his room and Roberge’s, depending on who was having the tougher night.
“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him,” said Luke, 42, a first Gulf War veteran. “I find myself being a 7-year-old kid again. He reacts to your emotions and brings me out of depression.”
When Roberge and Luke completed the program, Tyson picked up Krucker’s training leash.
“All of us have a defining moment where everything changes and we become different people,” he said. “In Iraq, something hit me and I knew I couldn’t go back to the way I was before. There’s a lot of emotional stuff going on here, and the dog helps.”
Carson, who has a mental health background, said by learning how to communicate with the dogs, veterans can transfer that ability to human relationships.
Paws for Purple Hearts was started in 2008 by Rick Yount, who moved on to create a similar organization called Warrior Canine Connection, which also has a branch in Menlo Park.
When the programs moved into the new Welcome Center this year, Smith, 57, whose disability stems from an accident in the Army, spoke at the opening about how Venuto changed his life.
“I don’t wake up at night with bad dreams,” Smith said. “If I’m ever depressed, he will just lay a paw on me. It’s just a good feeling. We all want to be loved, right?”
Next month, the dogs in Menlo Park will return to Bergin for final training.
“Saying goodbye is part of the treatment process,” Carson said. “It’s something we talk about, to deal with loss in a positive way.”
Tyson said it will be “heartbreaking” the last time he hugs Krucker.
“But he’s going to a better purpose,” he added. “Krucker is going to make somebody very happy.”