As an anthrozoologist, Clarissa Black understands the relationships between people and their animal companions and how those relationships can promote healing. While zoologists study animals, anthrozoologists study the relationships between animals and humans. And Black’s experience of those benefits goes well beyond the clinical: Her dog, “Bear,” gave Black a new lease on life when he helped her learn to cope with her symptoms from PTSD.
Despite her consummate love for animals and her professional background, the bond that Black experienced with her husky — a “Super Bond,” as she calls it — took her by surprise. Black felt that Bear could actually intuit what she needed, and she realized this might be something that other people could benefit from, if they could only experience it for themselves.
When Black took Bear to visit a local Veteran’s Association, she finally understood the potential of what she could offer. If veterans, 11 to 20% of whom suffer from PTSD, could experience the same bond with a rescued animal companion, then Black theorized that she could save shelter animals while providing real value to a population in need. The idea for Pets for Vets, an organization that matches companion animals with veterans, was conceived. “I really felt that ‘Eureka!’ moment with Bear, where I thought, ‘Oh, this is what I can do. This is how I can say thank you.’”
Fostering A Relationship
Black always loved animals. In fact, her very first word was “cat.” At a very young age, she achieved the impossible task of training her cat, and begged her parents for every kind of pet that they would allow. Thinking that she wanted to pursue veterinary medicine, she tried to distinguish her résumé by participating in relevant internships and working with animals.
It was through those internships, one with an elephant sanctuary in Arkansas and another with dolphins in Hawaii, that she realized what she truly enjoyed was the relationship that she developed with animals. “I realized that I didn’t want to be a vet, where I was inside and only seeing animals once a year,” says Black. “I wanted to do something that would enhance that relationship.”
Following graduation, Black returned to Hawaii, where she became a dolphin trainer and eventually decided that she needed a dog of her own. As soon as Bear came into Black’s life, she knew that their bond was something special and, following a traumatic personal experience that left Black with PTSD, Bear became her lifeline.
The effects of PTSD made Black want to lock herself in her house and refrain from seeing people, but Bear provided purpose, comfort and love. “It was really my dog Bear that I could lean on,” Black says. “Having him there every day and being able to go out to take him on walks and to reintegrate — just knowing that I had that support and that comfort and that I could feel safe because he was there.”
A Way Of Giving Back
When Black and some colleagues were asked to visit a local Veteran’s Association to review the service dog program, Bear went, too. Black felt passionately about helping veterans: Her father had served in the Army and her uncle had served in the Air Force — both in Vietnam — and her great-aunt (the one who had actually taught her the word “cat,”) had enlisted in SPARS in WWII. “Working with animals and helping people [was my way] to be able to give back,” Black says, “since people in my family gave back in another way.”
While Black expected Bear to have a positive effect on the veterans that they visited, Bear exceeded her expectations. If a veteran was mostly immobile, Bear would sit close enough to be stroked. If another veteran was working on physical therapy, Bear would put his paws up in solidarity. “He had such a way that I would see everybody’s eyes light up,” Black says.
By the end of their visit, many veterans were asking if they could take Bear home with them.
At that point, the available canine programs for veterans were for service dogs, which many veterans didn’t qualify for and, even if they did, service dogs were expensive. When Black saw the overwhelmingly positive effect that Bear was having on the veterans, she remembers thinking, “This Super Bond, this amazing thing that I have with Bear, this is something that I would love to give veterans to help them.”
Creating Super Bonds
How is a “Super Bond” different from any other bond between humans and their pets? “The Super Bond is something that I characterize as that undeniable, emotional, chemical connection,” Black says. “It’s that moment at first sight, or when you just feel so in tuned with your animal. For the Pets for Vets program, our animals start to actually intuit what their veterans need, and offer that to their veterans.”
What makes Pets for Vets so unique is that it centers around finding the right match for each veteran, almost like a dating service. Veteran applicants answer a series of questions and undergo interviews in order to determine what kind of companion they might need. The animals, who are primarily rescue dogs (although Black has placed cats and even a rabbit), are also evaluated.
The goal of this match-making process is to assess what both veteran and canine need — Black says that the type of companion an applicant might think they want could differ from what would benefit them most.
Black recalls an example of a veteran who was having serious challenges readjusting to life after the military. “What he told me, specifically,” Black says, “was that what he lost in Iraq was his heart and his soul.”
This veteran was experiencing anger and had significant challenges relating with other people. When he approached Pets for Vets, he told Black that he wanted a really big dog, like a German Shepherd. But Black thought that an intimidating animal might only serve to further alienate other people. Instead, she matched the veteran with a rescued Jindo, a very smart and friendly dog breed known for their loyalty.
“He told me that what he learned from his dog was seeing how his dog navigated the world and seeing how he responded to people — seeing how he loved the world and loved people,” Black says. “His dog started to open up that window to his soul. It was a few years later that he got engaged and married.”
Sociability, confidence and relief from loneliness are just some of the benefits that can come from a companion-dog relationship. But some symptoms of PTSD are more challenging to address. Black describes a veteran who, by the time he contacted the organization, had not slept a full night in almost three years because he was haunted by nightmares. Before Pets for Vets placed the dog — a pitbull/labrador mix — with the sleepless veteran, they gave the animal nightmare training. The dog would recognize wrestling and mumbling as a cue to poke the veteran with her nose to wake him from the nightmares.
As time passed, Black says, the veteran had fewer nightmares. “He started to get a good night’s sleep because of his bond and his connection with his dog.”
Evolving The Relationship
Pets for Vets has made over 500 companion matches in the 11 years since its foundation. During that time, they have arguably saved the lives of both the animals and their veterans. One applicant told Black when he first approached Pets for Vets that “he was either going to get a dog or a gun. Fortunately,” Black says, “he reached out to us.”
As the program matures, Black and her team are navigating new challenges: Recently, the canine companion of one of their very first matches passed away. Black feels committed to helping throughout this challenging part of the relationship. And she keenly understands the challenge, having lost her beloved companion, Bear, in January 2020.
But Bear’s legacy of love is rekindled with every new match that he inspires through Pets for Vets. The program can only provide services in the 19 states and the District of Columbia where they have chapters, due to the nature of the pairing process. Black would love to be able to help veterans in all 50 states.
“When I started, it was just something that I thought I would do on my own, as my own way to say thank you, my own way to give back. I figured I’d just do a few matches out of my own pocket, with local veterans. What has surprised me is how everybody has really taken to the program,” Black says. “I mean, for everybody: You either love dogs or you love veterans — or you love both.”
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