Currents

Here when you need me

One veteran with a dog improving the lives of many

By LAURIE STUART
Posted 3/11/20

Mark Herbert is well equipped to help veterans train and receive service dogs. 

He should know. He has one.

A lifelong resident of Hortonville, and an eight-year veteran of the U.S. Coast …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in
Currents

Here when you need me

One veteran with a dog improving the lives of many

Posted

Mark Herbert is well equipped to help veterans train and receive service dogs. 

He should know. He has one.

A lifelong resident of Hortonville, and an eight-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, he lives with Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder (PTSD). His experience and his own illness help him to effectively help other veterans.

He’s attended the classes on anger management and the ones on the stigma of living with mental health issues. He’s been through living with anxiety. He’s been through trying to self-medicate. He can be “on the level” with other veterans who are suffering with these same experiences. He has walked in their shoes. His story is their story.

Herbert’s official title is Mental Illness Chemical Addiction (MICA) Service Coordinator at Action Toward Independence. He is an advocate to help veterans with anything they need: housing, employment, being an ear and a resource to lean on and—his favorite—running the service dog program. The program helps veterans with PTSD, those who are Totally and Permanently Incapacitated (TPI) and those with PTSD from Military Sexual Trauma (MST). He helps these veterans “gain confidence to get back out into society.”

He’s a matchmaker of sorts, helping veterans and their would-be service dogs to meet, train and bond together. 

The process begins as Herbert helps to identify the type of dog the veteran wants and needs. They do research online and find potential service dog partners to visit in shelters. When the dog becomes six months old and after being spade or neutered, they embark on a 26-week regiment that makes those dogs ready to accompany a veteran everywhere they go. The dog’s job, according to Herbert, is to be invisible when out in public, and to be focused on nothing more than the well-being of their veteran partner.

“When I put on the service vest, my dog becomes a different dog. She starts dancing and she’s ready to go anywhere I want. She pays attention to everything that I do and waits for my commands. She’s by my side and she gives me confidence to go anywhere.”

The service dog program starts to “crack the shell” of isolation that a veteran may feel. The cracking process begins with providing motivation to live in the present moment—to take care of the dog and take the dog out. It continues as the dog helps with anxiety issues, depression and PTSD. A solid bond forms and the veteran has companionship and assistance 24/7.

And it goes further. Through the training sessions, which are initially done in a group, veterans have the opportunity to get out and meet other people.

“It’s very relieving. For myself, I always looked forward to the training. You realize that everyone is here for the same thing,” Herbert said.

While every dog and veteran go through obedience basics, training becomes very specialized to the needs of the veterans as it progresses. Dogs can be trained to recognize emotional triggers and provide comfort, pick up items, turn off lights, open doors, even cover veterans experiencing seizures. 

These specific needs determine the size and breed of the dog that would be most useful. “If veterans are less mobile, then a medium- or small-sized dog might be best. If they’re active, a larger dog will be more useful.”

Herbert’s love of dogs has been a lifelong passion. “I’ve never met a breed I didn’t like.” He worked with them in the Coast Guard, using dogs to find victims after hurricanes. 

With a service dog, he says, “You know someone is there watching you. It makes you feel good and your anxiety is so much lower than without having the dog.

“You’re not alone. They are committed to your welfare. They are trained that their eyes are always on you. And it’s remarkable how they bond with the veteran. It warms your heart up. The dogs are amazing; they learn some things and provide assistance without being taught. And when they do, you pick up on it and you can utilize their learning and teach them another task.” 

He credits the program for increased participation in events and functions, which also help to decrease isolation and improve the quality of the veteran’s lives.

“People with PTSD don’t like to be out in crowds. Your anxiety is triggered by being out in the public. It doesn’t make you comfortable. These dogs give you that confidence booster.

“We wouldn’t have as many veterans at events if it weren’t for the dogs. They give people with chronic PTSD chances to live a better life”

And he should know. He’s been there. In one sense, it’s his life story.

Serving both Orange and Sullivan counties, Action Toward Independence, Inc. is a private corporation recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a 501 (c)(3) not-for-profit corporation and is registered with the NYS Department of State as a Charitable Organization. Its mission is to promote the independence, inclusion, participation and personal choice of individuals with disabilities. To make a donation or learn more about Action Toward Independence, call 845/794-4228 or visit www.atitoday.org.

Click here for more about the beginning of the service dog program, click here.


About this series

Every year, a portion of the proceeds from the annual Pet Calendar is donated to an organization that helps with the welfare of animals. This year, we decided to sponsor a service dog through Action Toward Independence and to follow that journey through the Pet Pages in a monthly feature. It’s a win-win, advocate Mark Herbert says. “Those who know a little about the program will learn more. Those who know nothing will be intrigued. And those who know about it will be pleased that it is helping another veteran.”

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment