Veterans’ Best Friends

Military vets have told a researcher that dogs give them purpose and save them from self-harm—and she’s proving it in studies

Years before becoming a professor in Florida Atlantic University’s College of Nursing, Dr. Cheryl A. Krause-Parello says she knew there was something powerful about the human-animal bond. Krause-Parello turned the theory into a research initiative called Canines Providing Assistance to Wounded Warriors (C-P.A.W.W.), aimed at studying how that bond and other interventions might help struggling, sometimes suicidal, military veterans.

Dr. Cheryl A. Krause-Parello (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

“It’s really taking a deep dive into how the animals help veterans stay tethered to society,” she says.

Krause-Parello’s pursuit of scientific evidence is what’s needed to change policy and get funding, for example, for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who might benefit from specially trained service dogs. Service dogs not only help wounded veterans with their daily lives but also sense post-traumatic stress symptoms or anxiety, helping to refocus troubled veterans. These dogs might nudge veterans, walk next to them, stare at them or, in the case of big dogs, put their paws on veterans’ shoulders.

“It’s like they’re snapping the veteran back to reality and bringing them to the present to look at them. It is amazing to watch them do this,” Krause-Parello says.

But to train a service dog can cost up to $30,000, an expense that isn’t covered for veterans coping with PTSD. Krause-Parello hopes to change that.

It was Krause-Parello’s husband, David, who piqued her interest years ago when the couple lived on Staten Island. David, a Marine Corps veteran, was a first responder during the 9-11 rescue and recovery effort. “As soon as the first tower got hit, he was down at Ground Zero,” she says.

David Parello remained at Ground Zero for the next year and a half, searching through the rubble for remains. Krause-Parello remembers her husband coming home from work every night, showering, eating dinner, then sitting silently while petting the family dachshund, Samantha (Sam).

“I knew he was experiencing a lot of stress from what he was seeing and what he was finding in the rubble. And it was almost like every time he pet her he was petting his trauma away,” Krause-Parello recalls.

She later asked her husband about his time with Sam. David said Sam provided calm: She was always there, she didn’t ask questions, she was nonjudgmental. It was a beautiful and authentic relationship.

Krause-Parello, a nurse researcher, started C-P.A.W.W. in 2013 with the aim of better defining the relationship medically and psychologically between veterans, their dogs and potentially other animals. The research started when she was at the University of Colorado, and continues at FAU.

Krause-Parello has surveyed veterans about depression, anxiety, loneliness and more, and found the animals reduce biological and psychological stress. More studies are needed before Krause-Parello can present the scientific evidence needed to convince members of the government that service animals should be a reimbursable medical expense, she says.

“I’ve been on Capitol Hill,” Krause-Parello says. “When I was in Colorado, I would meet with my local government representatives. And they would always say to me, ‘Cheryl, show me the evidence so we [can] get some momentum on this.’”

Krause-Parello is trying to engage people who might want to invest in her nonprofit research. While most of her work is on the human-animal bond in veterans, she and her team are also conducting studies looking at the ancient Chinese practice of qigong and yoga as interventions for at-risk military members.

Local veterans can also get involved; Krause-Parello says she’s always looking for veterans to partner in the research process. She’s also seeking private donations; email her at cpaww@health.fau.edu.

“It’s a labor of love,” she says. “And I feel like we’ve succeeded, because I know that maybe some of the people may not have been here if they didn’t feel like they had a sense of purpose. Those animals really do help.”

This story is from the May/June 2019 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.