© 2021 WRVO Public Media
Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Dog training program for veterans offers therapy for post-traumatic stress

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
Ryan Woodruff, left, gives direction at a dog training class at Clear Path for Veterans.

For veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, a canine program at Clear Path for Veterans in Chittenango, offers an alternative form of therapy for veterans and their dogs. The dog training is meant to relieve some of the symptoms of PTSD.   

On Thursday, two veterans and their dogs were going through bond enhancement, phase one of a year-long program. One dog owner was teaching his Malamute to sit and stay on a platform box, while he was on the other side of the room.

“Because most dogs, when we teach them sit and down, we are right in front of them," said Erin McDonald, canine program manager at Clear Path. "They may want to break and come to the owner to do that behavior. It keeps the dog focused on their handler. If they wind up going into a busy public place, it’s a good exercise for focus, they’re always watching the handler when they are.”

McDonald said it’s about building on basic dog commands. After six months, these dogs will graduate as companion animals. Not all of them will go on to the more intense service animal training. Clear Path has around 30-40 veterans and their dogs participate in this program every year.

It’s designed to provide training for veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, or military sexual trauma.

Ryan Woodruff served in the Marine Corps, was deployed twice to Iraq and went through an earlier version of the program. He was matched up with a German Shepard mix from a participating shelter, and said those experiences shaped who he is today.

“It boosted my confidence," Woodruff said. "It helped me do things that otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have been engaged in as much.”

Woodruff went on to become the director of Clear Path’s canine program and he said the dog training can eventually lead to specific tasks that can mitigate the symptoms related to PTSD.

“So if I’m stressed out, and one of the things I do when I’m stressed out is tap my foot, a dog can be trained to put his paw on your foot to let you know that, hey, I’m here, what’s going on?" Woodruff said. "Can we solve this together?”

While its flagship canine program, which is in its eighth year, continues to grow and evolve, Clear Path will hold a barbeque on Saturday June 15, to continue to sustain the organization, heading into next year.