Animals

One Woman’s Mission to Create Unshakable Bonds Between Veterans and Dogs

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When animal trainer Clarissa Black realized how happy her dog, Bear, made local veterans, she came up with an innovative way to match the heroes with their perfect rescue pet— changing thousands of human and animal lives forever!

Power of Love

Clarissa Black’s heart soared as she watched her dog, Bear, roll onto his back for his umpteenth belly rub at the Long Beach, California, VA hospital. He’s such a ham! she grinned, gazing around at the happy faces of the veterans crowded around her fluffy husky-malamute mix.

Clarissa and BearClarissa Black

For weeks, the professional animal trainer and her colleagues had been visiting the VA hospital with their dogs to revamp the hospital’s therapy program. But Bear had become a special favorite. “Can he stay with us?” the veterans asked as Bear wandered around, picking up on exactly what each person needed, whether an affectionate snuggle in bed or an encouraging “paw-five.” But seeing the veterans’ faces drop as Bear doled out goodbye nuzzles when their visit came to an end, Clarissa wished she could make it so every vet could have their own dog to love.

“You’re the perfect pup for me,” she said to Bear, scratching his ears as they climbed into the car. And as their eyes met, Clarissa had an idea. “How about we create a program for veterans where we help them find their perfect dog?” And as Bear’s tail wagged excitedly, Clarissa knew she was onto something good.

Comrades for Life

Excited, Clarissa began researching service dog programs for veterans, but couldn’t find one that trained dogs to help with their specific needs. That’s what will make our program special, she thought. And with her background in animal behavior and training, she knew she had the expertise to create unshakable bonds between veterans and their dogs.

But where do I find the dogs? she mused, when suddenly, it dawned on her: There was another population struggling to find their perfect fit too: millions of animals in shelters across the U.S.

Inspired, Clarissa created her own nonprofit, Pets for Vets, devising a matchmaking process in which vets would fill out forms to determine what they were looking for in a pet, as well as any issues they were struggling with, from PTSD to traumatic brain injuries.

Once one veteran had filled out his form and discussed his PTSD, nightmares and sleep issues with Clarissa, she got to work searching for the perfect dog for him, and when she finally found her, Clarissa trained the pup to wake her owner at any sign of restlessness at night.

When she introduced him to his new dog, Clarissa was overwhelmed by the immediate bond between the two.

“It’s incredible!” the veteran smiled. “When we got home, I just lay down next to her and, suddenly, I was sleeping…with no nightmares!” Hearing this, Clarissa beamed, but as the veteran described the kinship between himself and his new dog and the hardship they’d both faced, he said something that touched her. “If they can heal, we can heal.” And as more veterans reached out to find their own companion, Clarissa knew he was right.

Lupita loves walks with her veteran mom.Too the Dogs Photography

The gift of hope

Today, more than 10 years after their first animal was placed in their forever home, Pets for Vets has expanded nationwide, with over 26 chapters from Florida to California. To date, more than 500 animals, from dogs to cats and even rabbits, have been matched with veterans— and their owners couldn’t be happier.

“I can’t stand to be away from my pup”, one Iraq war veteran shared. “She has scars on her face like I do, probably PTSD like I do…and now we’re healing together.”

For Clarissa, nothing could make her happier. “Rescuing animals and helping our heroes—it’s a win-win!” she says with a smile. “Pets for Vets is the bridge that gives deserving shelter animals a second chance at life, and gives veterans a second chance at health and happiness. It’s an amazing way to say thank you!”

Ranger the Husky and his owner go on adventures together.Too the Dogs Photography

3 Benefits of Pets’ Unconditional Love!

1. Pets Erase Sadness

Simply petting a furry friend fills the brain with oxytocin, the joy hormone, but new research also shows that dogs are innately in tune with human emotions. In fact, one study found that they are most likely to approach a person who is crying or upset, to instinctively soothe and show compassion!

2. Pets Slash Stress

In a recent study, researchers found that just 10 minutes of animal interaction boosted college students’ emotional health and reduced the stress hormone cortisol. Bonus: You don’t need a pet to get the benefits! Harvard researchers also found that simply being in the presence of an animal slashes stress by 40 percent!

3. Pets Ease Loneliness

The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) reports that 80% of pet owners say they feel less lonely. “Pets alleviate social isolation”, says Steven Feldman, HABRI executive director. Studies also indicate that pet owners over 65 make 30 percent fewer doctor visits!

This story originally appeared in our print magazine.

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