Taming the trauma

Local veteran starts dog therapy nonprofit

The wounds warriors bring home aren’t always visible.

Nightmares, anxiety, depression and flashbacks are common feelings for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder upon returning from deployment, said Jeff LeBaron, a local U.S. Navy veteran who suffered from PTSD for 34 years before it was diagnosed.

While seeking treatment, LeBaron learned about how much therapy dogs can help veterans, but not only are trained dogs hard to find, many veterans cannot afford them.

LeBaron said one properly trained dog can cost $15,000-$30,000.

With his wife, Mary, LeBaron fundraised to start the nonprofit organization Pets Loyal 2 Vets, which raises, trains and places therapy dogs with military veterans dealing with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries for free.

With the help of many volunteers, the organization operates a 5,000-square-foot training facility just west of Lakeville in Credit River Township and only recently started placing its first trained dogs with qualified veterans.

“We opened up the door to a floodgate of veterans applying,” LeBaron said. “We get applications every day.”

He expects the need to continue growing as more veterans return from the Middle East, and said he expects the organization will be able to train and certify 40-50 dogs per year.

Each dog receives customized training that is tailored to the needs of a specific veteran.

They offer companion dogs, therapy dogs and psychiatric service dogs.

“Our purpose is to meet the individual needs,” LeBaron said. “You can have 10 veterans with PTSD, but they each have different triggers.”

While not intended to replace other therapies or treatments, a therapy dog provides veterans companionship and emotional support.

“The dog will pick up on the pheromones people give off when they start to be stressed,” LeBaron said. “They can go over and lick their face or lay next to them just enough to let them wake up and come out of that nightmare. It’s just incredible how much can be trained into a dog and how smart the right dog is.”

The pet also requires care, like daily walks, that helps veterans interact with others and avoid seclusion that LeBaron said often leads to depression.

LeBaron said volunteers are needed to provide foster homes and help the dogs going through training.

He said being able to help other veterans is like therapy to him.

“The whole idea is to help veterans so they’re not doing any self-inflicted harm or committing suicide,” LeBaron said. “This is a labor of love.”

For more information, go to petsloyal2vets.org.

Minnesota veterans experiencing trauma or suffering symptoms of PTSD may also contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255.