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Man's best friend
Paws of War program helps veterans cope

Photos by Dan Bishop

November 2014

Soon after former Marine Ryan Holiday of Cedarburg came home from the war in Iraq, he knew he needed help.

While stationed near the Syrian border, he sustained injuries when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. He still battles stomach and shoulder injuries. But it was the mental demons that forced him to reach out for help. "The sleeplessness, the wild drinking, the things going through your head that arenít normal," says Holiday. He understood those demons. His father, a Vietnam veteran, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and took his own life when Ryan was 19.

For the 28-year-old Illinois transplant, relief came in the form of a chocolate Labrador-pointer mix by the name of Jocko from Paws of War, a veterans aid organization that trains emotional therapy dogs for vets with PTSD and other stress issues. Paws of War matched the pair, a process that took about five months. "It was a long time, but any amount of time would have been worth it," he says. "Heís certainly eased the burden of my mind."

Holiday, who experiences problems with crowds and strangers, says Jocko watches his back. He knows "when Iím not confident when a certain person gets too close to me," he says. Jocko will growl to warn that person to back off, giving Holiday the space he needs to get comfortable. "He makes me feel more confident about being around people I donít know."

Robert Misseri, founder of Guardians of Rescue, the parent organization of Paws of War, says animals have a very therapeutic, calming effect on people. They can draw out even the most isolated personality, and having to praise the animals helps traumatized veterans overcome emotional numbness. Teaching a dog service commands develops a personís ability to communicate, to be assertive but not aggressive, a distinction some struggle with. The dogs can also assuage the hypervigilance common in vets with PTSD. Some participants report they finally got some sleep knowing that a naturally alert soul was standing watch.

Researchers have found evidence that bonding with dogs has biological effects, such as elevated levels of the hormone oxytocin, which improves trust, and the overcoming of paranoia and other pro-social effects.

For Holiday, Jocko "makes you feel like youíre not alone with some of the stuff you go through, in a way that people canít," he says.

Paws of War is a free service for veterans who suffer from PTSD and other emotional coping issues. Much of its efforts are centered on raising money for training costs, which can run into thousands of dollars per animal. If youíd like to help out or want more information, go to


This story ran in the November 2014 issue of: