Service animals have come a long way from the traditional seeing-eye dog. These days, service dogs are highly trained (and often pricey) specialists geared to help people dealing with afflictions from diabetes to allergies to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With the growing number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, the demand for service dogs is now outpacing supply. "It's a growing industry, because of the amount of veterans coming home, the education about PTSD, but also because of realizing how these dogs can truly be used as a tool to help people with disabilities," says Shannon Walker with Northwest Battle Buddies, a non-profit that matches service dogs with veterans.
Walker tells KTRH these dogs should not be confused with the "emotional support" animals that have been in the news in recent months. "We are talking about dogs that are specifically trained and professionally trained to task for a specific disability, to alleviate and minimize some of the symptoms that a disability may cause," says Walker.
Other animals like horses have been used to help veterans with PTSD, but these service dogs are unique in that they are trained to perform specific tasks and act almost as an extension of the person, rather than simply serve as a pleasant companion. "Our dogs do cost $25,000, because our dogs go through a minimum of seven months professional training, then the veterans go through six weeks of training with the dog once we've paired them," says Walker.
Right now, groups like Northwest Battle Buddies can't train new service dogs fast enough. "We have a list of about 80 veterans waiting, and we've served 77 this year already," says Walker. "We're now doubling the amount of service dogs we're providing, and it really is life changing."