To Help Our Nation’s Heroes, Operation Pits Training Pit Bulls as Service Dogs for Veterans
By Deidre Grieves | Pet360.com
Like so many other veterans coming home from war, Justin Masters, a former Marine who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. His symptoms include vivid flashbacks, debilitating anxiety attacks and trouble acclimating in social situations. “Dealing with PTSD is it’s own animal,” says Justin. “You’re just trying to live your life, but it always seems to interfere. You never know when it’s going to happen.”
One day, when Justin was having a particularly bad anxiety attack, his pit bull foster dog named Pancake instinctively crawled on top of him to help calm him down. “He laid on me for six straight hours and wouldn’t leave my side,” says Justin.
Lauren Masters, Justin’s wife and an animal advocate, saw the positive effects Pancake was having on her husband firsthand and decided to partner with Houston-based Guardian Pitbull Rescue to start Operation Pits Healing Heroes (OPHH), a non-profit organization that trains pit bulls to act as service dogs for disabled veterans.
Launched in May, OPHH pairs rescued pit bulls with veterans and puts them through a six to nine-month training course at Club Canine, a facility run by lifelong dog trainer Dean Miller. The extensive personalization of the program, says Lauren, is what sets OPHH apart from other service-dog organizations. “We don’t just hand over an animal that has already been through months of training and give veterans a two-week crash course,” she explains. “It’s very important for the veteran and the dog to go through the entire training process together as a team. It teaches the veteran how to interact with the dog from day one.”
Justin and Pancake are the first participants to enlist in the OPHH program. They are over halfway through the training, and the former service member says that the process has already helped him cope with some of his social setbacks. “I really wasn’t going out in public. I wasn’t very animated,” says Justin. “[The training] is helping me personally deal with people, be with friends and just be myself again.”
OPHH pit bulls trained to assist with PTSD perform tasks such as covering intimidating objects, alerting veterans when panic attacks are coming, calming vets during episodes or flashbacks, and providing service members with personal space in crowded areas. OPHH will also work with other types of veteran disabilities to ensure that the needs of all veterans are met.
Lauren explains that one of the goals of OPHH is to shoot down the negative pit bull stereotypes that dominate the media. “We hope by involving pit bulls specifically in this type of program it opens people’s eyes up to seeing that they are capable of so much more than being aggressive dogs chained up in a backyard,” she says. “They are capable of love, compassion and companionship. Just like any other breed, with training, the sky’s the limit.”
Out of the gate, OPHH will work with one service member and one dog at a time. As fundraising comes in and the organization gets off the ground, the program will expand to include concurrent sessions. Veterans who wish to participate need to be available to work with the trainers for at least one hour a day, three days a week. The dogs trained in the OPHH program will mostly come from Guardian Pit Bull Rescue, unless veterans already have pit bulls as pets and want to undergo the training process with their own dogs.
Training with Pancake has already made a significant difference in Justin’s life. It’s a bond, he says, that reminds him of the closeness he felt with his comrades in the Marines. “It’s a good transition from the military because in the military you always work as teams,” says Justin. “Pancake is my buddy. We’re working hand-in-hand.”
For Lauren, watching her husband benefit from having a service dog is an experience that she hopes she can help replicate for other veteran families. “Justin and I are in this together. But I’ve struggled as his wife by feeling an inability to help him,” she says. “There’s only so much I can say to comfort him. But Pancake brings this silent level of companionship that seems to bring a calm over him. Watching that with my own two eyes has been extremely rewarding.”