Pets can make a huge change in someone’s life — just ask Long Beach animal trainer Clarissa Black, who has witnessed the dramatic difference first-hand.
With a degree in animal science from Cornell University, Black trained dolphins and elephants before expanding her work to include dogs and cats. She used her advanced skills and training principles to teach therapy dogs to become reliable companions for war veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
From there, she launched Pets For Vets.
“I started Pets for Vets in 2008 while taking with my own therapy dog Bear, who is such a ham, to one-hour sessions at the VA (Veterans Affairs),” Black said. “The veterans loved him, and it got me thinking, ‘Why should therapy only be an hour long?’”
Fused with her efforts to save shelter dogs from being euthanized, Black developed a plan to match willing veterans with a rescued dog as a way to provide them with support and companionship.
Black was recently recognized with a $20,000 GO YOU Award from Cigna for her ability to grow her nonprofit to contribute to improving the health of others. She was one of four charitable recipients across the country who received the award, and is up for a year-end $50,000 award chosen by the Cigna Foundation.
“I have seen incredible results,” Black said. “From the moment they meet their dog to months and years after, I have seen the improvements.”
Before a dog is matched to a person, Black and her team interview each veteran to find out what he or she is looking for in their new companion. With the veteran’s physical or mental challenges, Black works to ensure that the potential companion animal will be able to be matched to adapt to the vet’s lifestyle and personality.
Once the perfect dog is picked for the veteran, the team trains the canine to meet basic obedience behaviors, as well as how to meet the needs of its new owner, which could be physical or mental disabilities.
“From the first meeting and the process waiting for their dogs, the veterans start to anticipate the new arrival,” Black said. “They get their house ready and get everything they need for their new dog.”
One veteran, who suffered from chronic insomnia and nightmares after returning from Iraq, was able to finally rest after receiving his new companion. On their first day together, the dog rested alongside her veteran, and provided the comfort he needed to finally get rest. The dog also was trained to wake her new owner when he was having a nightmare.
“He said it was the first time he felt comfortable,” Black added, “and that all of his tension just melted away.”
Another veteran told Black that on his first night with his new dog, he cried to the pup when it placed its paw on his knee.
“A lot of our veterans saw that once they have their dog, they no longer need or take as much medication as they did before,” Black said. “Some people just pick out dogs at the shelter based on how cute they are. We look for dogs at any age that have the right temperament.”
Black has established eight Pets For Vets chapters across the nation, and is hoping to expand with the help of donations and the Cigna GO YOU award, she said. In Long Beach alone, she and her team have placed 20 dogs with veterans.
“I want to thank Cigna because it shows how deeply they respect people in our country. We can keep doing what we’re doing because of them.”