Military veterans and pets, a winning pair at NKLA

Military veterans, some of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), spend therapeutic time with homeless shelter dogs and cats.
By Michelle Sathe

Military veteran Sunny Patrick playing with a catSunny Patrick was not in the best mood when she woke up on Veterans’ Day. The military veteran, who served in Somalia, has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and tends to isolate herself when bouts of depression hit. But things would soon turn around. Sunny was one of several military veterans to spend the day in a volunteer orientation at the NKLA Pet Adoption Center in West Los Angeles. By that afternoon, she had a big grin on her face as she played with cats in the free roam room.

Armed with a feather wand, Sunny had an audience of five felines at her feet who swatted, meowed and pranced about. “I don’t think I’ve laughed so much in weeks,” Sunny says. “You don’t think about what you’ve been through when you look at these faces.”

Lifting humans’ and animals’ spirits

The NKLA Pet Adoption Center is one of two Best Friends Animal Society locations in Los Angeles dedicated to helping shelter pets find homes. Until they are adopted, interaction with volunteers, such as going for walks or simply being petted, is crucial to the dogs’ and cats’ well-being.

For veterans, spending time with a pet can be downright therapeutic, according to Louisa Mendelsohn, recreation therapist for the Veterans Administration of Los Angeles.

Louisa transported the veterans to attend the orientation and liked what she saw.

“Animals give unconditional love, which so many people don’t get,” Louisa says. “Spending time with animals can lower your blood sugar and stress hormones. A change comes over the whole body.”

A change can also come over the spirit, as veteran Bilar Abdul Hasan explained after walking an adorable, adoptable puppy. “It just made me feel good to be giving something back,” Bilar says with a smile.

Veterans helping others

Military veteran Bilar Abdul Hasan holding a dogAlso taking part in the day was Sheri Williams, a dog trainer and founder of Animal T.A.I.L. (Animal Therapists Assisting in Living), whose program matches veterans with pets from local shelters to adopt and ultimately train for service or animal-assisted therapist certifications.

Once the pet is certified, the pair can sign up to become part of an animal-assisted therapy team to work with disabled and special-needs children or rescue and train dogs for the elderly.

Animal T.A.I.L. is working with Best Friends Animal Society and the Veterans Administration of Los Angeles to expand her program to local veterans, such as those in attendance.

“What dogs do for veterans is to bring a sense of normalcy back into their lives. PTSD can be a very dark place. Pets take these vets out of the darkness and into the light,” Sheri says.

After the initial orientation, Bilar, Sunny and the other participants were encouraged to return and become regular volunteers at the center.

“These veterans, like our adoptable pets, are healing after adjusting to life-changing circumstances, so my goal is to assist them into acclimating back into society after serving our country,” says Tamara Gvozdenovic, volunteer specialist at the NKLA Pet Adoption Center. “Veterans deserve special recognition and I’m happy to welcome them as part of the NKLA volunteer program family.”

Sunny, a self-professed animal lover, had no doubts she’d be back.

“In my apartment, I’m isolated and not able to work on my issues. Volunteering is a great way for me to get out, make friends, and be around animals. You can’t be in a bad mood while you’re with these pets,” she says.

Learn about volunteer opportunities with animals.

Photos by Holly Stein

Los Angeles