Speeding the recovery and enhancing the lives of wounded military heroes through the use of specialty-trained service dogs
Freedom Dogs is a nonprofit organization devoted to serving wounded members of the military who are attempting to return to civilian life. Along with our trainers, our specialty service dogs provide both physical and emotional support, helping wounded warriors to successfully make this challenging transition.
Working closely with the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton in Southern California, our organization provides custom-trained dogs through two free programs: The Partner Program pairs a dog and trainer team with a warrior to complement rehabilitation and assist in the recovery process. If needed, the Partner for Life Program matches a dog with a warrior for life.
Freedom Dogs is a fully registered 501(c)3 nonprofit. As a totally volunteer organization, no staff or trainers receive compensation for their work in our program.
A former critical care nurse in the Surgical ICU/ Trauma unit of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Medical Center, Beth Russell, RN, launched Freedom Dogs in 2006, later becoming its lead trainer and director. Both of her parents were veterans of World War II, so Russell had a great interest in working with the military.
Previously trained to work with service dogs through a San Diego program, Russell had observed how dogs could decrease the rehabilitation time for individuals suffering from trauma caused by accidents and other profound experiences. When she launched Freedom Dogs, she soon realized that warriors with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries (TBI)—in addition to those with other physical limitations—might greatly benefit from specialty service dogs.
To prepare for work with warriors who had post-traumatic stress, Russell started training her own dogs to recognize and respond to the warrior’s specific needs. Freedom Dogs then became the first organization to use specialty service dogs with wounded warriors who had post-traumatic stress.
In May of 2009, Freedom Dogs completed a pilot program with the Marine Corps’s Wounded Warrior Battalion-West at Camp Pendleton as requested by the Commandant of the Marine Corps. It paired specialty service dogs and their trainers with two Marines—becoming an indispensable part of the Marines’ rehabilitation and recovery from post-traumatic stress. This pilot was so successful it resulted in an ongoing close partnership between the Wounded Warrior Battalion – West (WWBn-W) and Freedom Dogs—the only one of its kind in the country.
Our organization is “embedded” in the Wounded Warrior Battalion – West on Camp Pendleton, California. The Wounded Warrior Battalion – West directly assigns us men and women in need of the educational training process, thorough follow-up, and continued support our program provides. Our close collaboration with the Wounded Warrior Battalion – West ensures the best chances for success.
For example, after each working team session with a Marine, the trainer files a report with the Marine’s health care provider. The Marines also file reports, describing their levels of anxiety, progress meeting goals, and plans for the future. The health care provider reviews all this information, further tailoring the Marine’s plan of care, as needed.
Nearly half of the 1.6 million warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking benefits for disabilities. Freedom Dogs is changing the lives of wounded warriors like these. Freedom Dogs strives mightily to reduce the impact of disabling conditions on the health, mood, social interaction, and employment of returning Marines.
Emotional Costs of War
For many military personnel, post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury (TBI) are the signature injuries. Although largely invisible, both post-traumatic stress and TBI can have a devastating impact. For example, post-traumatic stress can cause flashbacks or nightmares, panic attacks, hypervigilance, or severe isolation. Almost once an hour a veteran or service member dies as a result of suicide—fatalities that exceed the numbers incurred in actual battle.