Local veterans paired with service dogs thanks to national nonprofit’s expansion

Mass — Three Massachusetts women who served in the military are starting a new chapter in their civilian lives thanks to Canine Companions – a national nonprofit that provides fully trained service dogs to adults and children with disabilities.

For decades, Canine Companions has helped people with physical disabilities, and now they are expanding to help veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 13% of female veterans suffer from PTSD.

“I think especially for post-traumatic stress disorder there’s still a stigma,” said Kirsten Holley, an Army veteran from Hanscom Air Force Base. “It’s hard to have that invisible wound, so to speak.”

Holley was one of three Massachusetts veterans to get paired with a service dog in the latest class of Canine Companions graduates. Four veterans were included in the group, and all of them are women.

“A big portion of my job is being a veteran in recovery, or actively in recovery for either mental health or substance use and using my own journey to instill hope, and to work with other veterans on their recovery goals,” said Jessica Mack, an Air Force veteran from North Chelmsford. “Now, I work with veterans, I’m a peer specialist at a VA hospital, and I absolutely love it.” Mack and Holley spent weeks at the Canine Companions headquarters in New York practicing commands and learning how to care for their new dogs.

They’re hoping to gain more independence and comfort in their day-to-day lives thanks to their new service dogs, Mango and Dean.

“Being able to enjoy going to the stores again and feel safe,” Mack said. “I love the idea of Target but then there’s so many people and they crowd in and being able to have the freedom again to be able to go to the store on my own with Mango.”

The service dogs are trained in anxiety interruption and will help the veterans both during the day and at night. “I don’t sleep well and I have some nightmares,” Mack said. “Having Mango as a companion, but also providing deep pressure at night.”

Holley hopes that sharing her story will inspire other veterans to seek help if they are struggling.

“I think that’s a misconception about a service dog team is that not all injuries are visible,” Holley said. “Moving forward I know for me personally Dean will really help with again the anxiety interruption, having confidence to go into public, a reason to go into public and not just avoiding those situations.”

Even though their journeys with their new service dogs have just begun, the women know the impact on their lives is going to be immense. “It’s already been life changing,” Mack said.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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