Service dogs assist veterans through mental illness


One month before Webster University graduate Tom Palozola committed suicide, he had to put down his rescue dog, a mastiff named Basilone. Palozola was among many other veterans who have service dogs as a supporting anchor in their lives.

There are over 20 organizations based in, or working with, Missouri to train animals to become of service to veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is proven by the National Center for PTSD that dogs help those with anxiety and other emotional traumas. The service dogs are trained to alert their owners of dangers and also help calm them down when they become physically anxious.

“Owning a dog can lift your mood or help you feel less stressed. Dogs can help people feel better by providing companionship. All dog owners, including those who have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can experience these benefits,” The National Center for PTSD website said.

Palozola suffered from depression, and having Basilone helped him cope with anxiety and stress. According to his brother Matt Palozola, having a pet gives a veteran something to care for, therefore keeping their mind off of the symptoms of PTSD.

Basilone was Tom Palozola’s running partner and friend. After 10 years, Basilone began to suffer from terminal liver failure. Tom Palozola ended up having to put his dog down, something which Matt Palozola said put his brother on edge.

“It was a pretty serious thing,” Matt Palozola said. “We were all checking on him constantly. Just making sure he was okay because it was a rescue dog and he loved that dog. It was like his son pretty much.”

A Veterans Affairs (VA) 2016 news release said that 652 veterans with approved guide or service dogs receive the veterinary service benefit, a benefit given to veterans who have dogs trained Assistance Dogs International. 

Chris West with his service dog Zivah. West met Zivah through the Missouri Patriot Paws.
Photo Credit: Chris West Chris West with his service dog Zivah. West met Zivah through the Missouri Patriot Paws.

Chris West, a St. Louis veteran, is one of these people. He has PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). He has had his service dog for a little over a year, after his first dog had to be put down.

“She wasn’t a service dog, but she kind of in the same aspect served as a service dog,” West said. “It was kind of devastating for me.”

West served in Iraq from Feb. 2008 to Feb. 2009. He is a Specialist E-4, one rank lower than sergeant. He is also attached to the Military Police Company, a law enforcement unit within the U.S. Army Reserve. A couple days after he put his first dog down, he reached out to Missouri Patriot Paws (MPP), a service dog provider for veterans.

Thirty days after he put his dog down, he went to the MPP to meet a yellow lab named Zivah, and he fell in love with her.

“She gives me a purpose,” West said. “She takes my mind off of the pressures of being out in society. Having her gives me that sense of purpose and I don’t focus so much on the fact that I’m out in public and I should be watching my back and assessing threats. She’s helped me get some of my freedom back.”

MPP receives most of their service dogs from shelters. Then, they are trained to be a service dog by going through a series of five different training sessions.

MPP is also involved in the Puppies for Parole program, a program that allows selected prison inmates to participate in becoming dog trainers. Offenders work with the dogs to teach them basic obedience skills and properly socializing them to making them more adoptable in shelters. Once the dogs have successfully completed the program, they will be adopted through their original shelter.

The MPP Program Director Susan Hinkle says that service dogs can help even by having their owner pet them. She said it is a lot of work, time and effort to keep everything running, but it is worth it.

Hinkle hears success stories from veterans and their dogs from MPP all the time. She said the great ones involve the dog saving a veterans life.

“I can’t tell you how many [veterans] have told me that they had a gun up to their head to kill themselves,” Hinkle said. “One veteran told me he had the gun to his head and his dog laid on his chest looking at him. He said he looked into those eyes and knew he had to stay for his dog.”

Like Tom Palozola, veterans with PTSD can experience suicidal thoughts or actions. Service dogs for Veterans programs like MPP can help prevent occurrences from social anxiety to suicide.

“Really the best thing for me is taking a dog running the streets that no one wanted and within six months or so they are saving a life,” Hinkle said. “These dogs are family to veterans.”

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