COLUMBIA —Bryce Menges, 24, used to have to pay his neighbors to go to the grocery store for him.
When Menges returned from a 15-month operation in Baghdad, where he lost a team leader, he displayed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He started counseling at the Truman Veterans Hospital at MU in 2010 and has been a patient there since.
"I’m just trying to get out there and be a normal 24-year-old," Menges said.
Participating in the Veterans and Shelter Dogs training program has helped the transition back into daily life for him, he said.
"That one hour, twice a week, completely resets me for the next couple of days," he said. "It helps me to know I’m helping the dogs."
The Veterans and Shelter Dogs program is a study run through the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at MU. The center is directed by Rebecca Johnson, professor at the Sinclair School of Nursing and College of Veterinary Medicine. The center conducts studies to explore the health benefits of human-animal interaction.
The study is meant to provide veterans with a stress-reducing experience while helping shelter dogs learn the skills they need to be adopted, explained Charlotte McKenney, assistant director of the research center.
"We want to help the veterans feel more comfortable coming back into society," she said.
The study has three parts. During the first part, the center selected veterans to give basic training to specially screened dogs from the Central Missouri Humane Society. Veterans who have returned from service in Iraq or Afghanistan in the past five years are eligible. As dogs are adopted, another is added to the project.
The second part of the process is for the veterans to mentor new adopters of shelter dogs for six months with follow-up and support phone calls.
Only some participants will have the opportunity to advance to the last part of the program, which involves training dogs beyond the basics to be a post-traumatic stress disorder service dog.
Menges said he hopes to advance to find a dog that is compatible with his personality to train as a service dog for himself.
Getting outside of the facility gives the dogs a chance for socialization they wouldn't usually have, said Mary Pat Boatfield, executive director of the Central Missouri Humane Society.
Last year, participating veterans trained about 200 dogs for adoption.
"We find that when people are looking for a dog to adopt and they find out a veteran trained them, there’s support for that," she said.
Boatfield also said the follow-up adoption support has helped keep dogs in their adoptive homes.
The project is only in the beginning of its second year so there are no conclusive results yet, McKenney said. It's supposed to be a mental release that improves the lives of the veterans and the dogs, she said.
"This program has been like therapy for me," participant Krystl Stroker, 25, said.
Stroker was a truck driver on two tours in Iraq. She is now studying social work at Columbia College and has re-enlisted in the Army Reserve. The program was a perfect fit for her because she has always felt the need to protect and help others, she said.
"Those dogs are like a lot of us vets, damaged."
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