by Katie Nielsen and Jennifer Mistrot

SANTA ROSA (KPIX 5) — The US Department of Veteran’s Affairs says the rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among veterans can be as high as 30%, and its effects can be crippling. Now, one Bay Area non-profit is offering to help those service members affected by PTSD.

For more than 40 years Canine Companions for Independence has been providing specialty trained dogs to people with special care needs.

The Santa Rosa-based center trains dogs to “assist adults with physical disabilities to perform daily tasks, hearing dogs that alert deaf and hard of hearing to important sounds and skilled companion dogs that enhance independence for children and adults who have disabilities.”

Now the center is focusing on a different type of health concern, PTSD. It’s one of only a handful of organizations across the country selected by the VA to be part of a study looking at the effectiveness of specially trained service dogs to help in treatment of the disorder.

CEO Paige Mazzoni says this is the next step for an organization already committed to helping those who have served our country.

“We’ve always provided a lot of service dogs to veterans, but those have been more for physical disabilities,” explained Mazzoni. “What our service dogs for PTSD do is an additional set of commands that are customized for veterans or for the situation with PTSD.”

Recently the center held a “graduation ceremony” for newly-minted handlers and their specially trained dogs. Francisco, a non-active duty service member who asked to be identified only by his first name, received his dog, Tawny, at the ceremony. He says he began experiencing PTSD symptoms after he returned from a stint in Afghanistan, where he deployed as a nurse to a frontline hospital in its intensive care unit.

Francisco says the experience changed him forever.

“What you see in Afghanistan, I don’t think anyone could ever prepare you, for what you see and do,” explained Francisco.

Unable to return successfully to his previous nursing job in the US, Francisco sought help and was diagnosed with PTSD. During the course of his treatment, he found out about Canine Companion’s new program. Now Francisco can count on Tawny to help him when he experiences his symptoms in public.

For instance, Tawny is trained to create extra personal space around Francisco if he gets anxious in a crowded place. When they are at home, Tawny can wake Francisco up if he is having a night terror.

Francisco says having Tawny has helped him gain confidence in the present, and optimism for the future.

“The dog will allow me to live in the moment so that I can enjoy the experiences of that moment such as my son blowing out his candles or watching the fireworks,” explained Francisco. “I can go to Disneyland, go on vacation, go on airplanes, go to wherever you go.”