In 2009, when Jim Stanek returned badly wounded and traumatized from his third Army tour of duty in Iraq, he and his wife Lindsey had to confront a cold, hard truth: Some wounds can’t be healed. “There’s no cure for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury,” Lindsey says. “These are injuries you have to learn to live with.”
To help manage this monumental task, the couple turned to Sarge. Lindsey had adopted the young female Catahoula Leopard Dog mix during Jim’s nine-month recovery in the hospital, intending to have her trained as his service dog. But obtaining a service dog trainer they could afford was no easy matter.
Realizing other veterans would encounter the same difficulties, the Staneks decided to found their own organization, Paws and Stripes, to provide trained service dogs for veterans grappling with PTSD and TBI. The catch? Every Paws and Stripes dog must come from a shelter.
The organization works with local shelters and foster homes to help veterans find dogs . “No one breed is better than any other,” says Lindsey, now CEO of the Rio Rancho, N.M.-based nonprofit. “We look for dogs between the ages of 18 months and 3 years, and they need to be medium to large in size because of the tasks they’ll perform.”
Each dog is individually trained to meet the needs of a particular veteran. For example, an initial assessment of a veteran may show one person requires a medical alert canine, while another needs mobility assistance. “Since Jim has equilibrium problems, Sarge (now 3) is trained to walk beside him to provide support and help him get up and down,” Lindsey says. “In public, she gives Jim a buffer zone. If someone walks up, she stands between them so he has some space; she also watches his back to make sure no one startles him.”
Paws and Stripes pays the $2,000 it costs to cover training, and veterans work directly with trainers to school their own dogs — a strategy that offers important benefits. Not only does it reinforce their bond, but the veteran also gains skills for molding another service dog when his current helper retires. The training experience itself also has a therapeutic effect, Lindsey says. “We incorporate a modality founded by the Trauma Resource Institute, so we’re essentially working to help PTSD symptoms at the same time,” she notes. The Trauma Resource Institute, based in Santa Fe, N.M., is a nonprofit corporation that promotes innovative training models to heal individuals from the damage of traumatic experiences.
The culmination of this do-it-yourself training can be a beautiful thing to behold. “Jim and Sarge kind of have their own subtle language, and they both take care of each other,’’ Lindsey says. “Some days a service dog needs a service person, too! These dogs embody pure innocence and unconditional love, and that in itself is pretty powerful.”
To find out more about Paws and Stripes, visit www.pawsandstripes.org
The rescue efforts of Paws and Stripes inspired FreeKibble.com, a website dedicated to providing nutritious food to shelter animals, to donate 5,000 meals of Halo Spot’s Stew to a shelter designated by Paws and Stripes.