Koda’s Choice: Pairing veterans with PTSD and rescue dogs

Koda’s Choice is pairing rescue dogs with veterans to help alleviate the effects of PTSD and other traumatic brain injuries.

by Julia Migné

Koda's choice PTSD INKLINE
“The brotherhood that people in the military have doesn’t end when we no longer wear the uniform. I wouldn’t leave anyone behind then… and I still won’t now.” Lawne Synder, Founder of Koda’s Choice

Each year, millions of veterans struggle with coming back to civilian life. Resuming “normal” day-to-day activities becomes difficult and they often feel lonely and disconnected during the transition.

According to RAND, 20 percent of veterans actually suffer from PTSD symptoms, which makes their return home even more difficult. Many will unfortunately only receive “minimally adequate” treatment to help alleviate their struggles.

Lawne Synder enlisted in the U.S. Army as a medic in 2012, and he quickly realised that many of the people he was working with were battling with depression, insomnia, and nightmares. Those inner demons ended up infiltrating his own mind as well, but a dog named Koda entered his life and helped him get out of a dark place. 

Research has shown that PTSD service dogs can have a deep impact on veterans lives and Lawne is now determined to train dogs and pair them with battle buddies to help alleviate the emotional and psychological burdens associated with PTSD.

INKLINE talked to Lawne Synder, founder of Koda’s Choice, and to Kristen Kitta, director of the board for the non-profit organisation. They told us more about why they decided to pair rescue dogs with veterans and how the dogs can play a crucial role in diminishing PTSD. 

Koda's Choice INKLINE
Lawne Synder, founder of Koda’s Choice & Kristen Kitta, Director of the board for Koda’s Choice. © Koda’s Choice

INKLINE: How did Koda’s Choice come to life? 

Lawne Synder: I rescued Koda from a good friend of mine when I was stationed in Colorado and I knew straight away that she had a really good way of knowing when my mind was wandering or when I was feeling down. She would get me out of the couch and will keep me busy and my mind would then not be in such a dark place.

I ended up doing some training to get her certified for myself and then we moved from Colorado to Florida. Six months after we moved, I kind of had a weird feeling when I woke up in the morning and I saw that a good friend of mine that I had been stationed with had taken his life back in Colorado.

I know that my dogs have helped me many times and I just thought that it was time for me to start giving back to these other veterans and that maybe it would help them. That was October 2016 and we then got everything running in April-March 2017.

Koda's Choice
Dogs can be very sensitive to human emotions. © Koda’s Choice

Kristen Kitta:  We rescue all of our dogs. That was really important to us because we both did a lot of rescue work and so we know that there are a lot of dogs in shelters. So first we rescue the dogs and then we train them and place them with veterans who have PTSD and other injuries. Our main focus is rescuing the dogs and then rescuing the veterans and pairing them together and we call them battle buddies.

I: How did you learn to train the dogs in that way?

L: I have been around dogs my entire life and I don’t know exactly what it is but Kris probably can answer this better than I can. 

K: Lawne is basically like the dog whisperer! He has a natural knack for it and of course when he decided to start this project, we did more research to look into the training and education that went into it. He definitely has that natural knack though, he instantly connects with the dogs and he is really good at training them.

Koda's Choice PTSD INKLINE
Koda, the inspiration behind the name of the non- profit organisation. © Koda’s Choice.

I: How do you pair the dogs with the veterans? 

K: There is a lot that goes into that! We have veterans applying to get a dog and they fill an extensive application telling us more about what their lifestyle is, if they like being outside, where they work, what type of environment they live in, etc.

L: We don’t want to put a big dog for example in a tiny apartment.

K: Then we do a lot of interaction before the dogs are permanently placed in a home. It’s really important to make sure that the dog and the veteran establish that relationship and that bond, but also to check that their personalities match together because that is part of the healing process. We want the dog and the veteran to have that really special connection and making everything click so it’s a little bit of a lengthy process to make sure they match up perfectly but it’s really rewarding at the end. 

L: We also follow up afterwards to make sure that everything is going well and if there needs to be some retraining we can do. 

Koda's Choice PTSD service dogs INKLINE
“Lawne is basically like the dog whisperer.” © Koda’s Choice

I: Could you tell us a bit more about how the dogs can help veterans with PTSD?

L: I have bouts of pretty bad depression and anxiety and there are days where I really don’t want to get out of bed and Koda grabs the sheets of the bed and pull them off or make sure I get out of the couch. This may sound for a lot of people like, ‘Oh she just wants to go for a walk,’ but as you see her laying on the floor, she is like that all the time except when she knows that I’m not in a good place and then she is right in my face. She does a real good job at making sure that my head is in the right place and that i’m getting active. She goes almost everything single place where I go. She’s got a really good sense of knowing when something bad happens.

K: She really helps with the anxiety. She can really sense when it’s coming through before it even happens and she is a really good support system. The dogs are really good at reading the emotions, they have a really special sense for it. They become like the veterans’ best friends as they can sense what’s going on and I think it provides a lot of comfort. It goes both ways as the dog is rescued and has a new purpose in life.

Koda's Choice INKLINE Rescued dogs
Veterans paired with dogs. © Koda’s Choice

K: I think when soldiers come home from war or separate from the military, it can be very lonely. Even if they have their family and friends around them, they can feel very misunderstood and kind of disconnected from everything else going on in the world. The dogs help bridge that gap and provide that healing so that soldiers feel more comfortable and more confident in reentering civilian life and establishing something that feels like a good, normal, happy life. The dogs provide an unconditional love and healing that sometimes I don’t even think a human could provide.

“We want the dog and the veteran to have that really special connection and making everything clicks so it’s a little bit of a lengthy process to make sure they match up perfectly but it’s really rewarding at the end.”

I: What are some of the challenges you are facing at the moment? 

L: Our biggest problem right now is not having the room for more dogs. We’ve had so far 25 or so applications but we have only one dog at the moment because I’m doing all the training by myself. So we are in the process this year to raise enough money to get a piece of land where we could build some kennels on to get more dogs and more volunteers to then be able to help more people.

I: What’s coming next for Koda’s Choice?

K: Our goal this year is to get six to eight dogs out. Of course the challenge is donations because we don’t charge the veterans anything to place the dogs so everything is donation-based to rescue them, feed them, and train them.

We know this year is going to be the year for things to really take off for us because there has been a lot of interest both from the veterans and from the community. This is the year of blossoming. We’ve been doing a lot of work in the background and things are just now starting to really take off and we are getting some attention so it’s really exciting. 

L: We are also doing a charity hockey game in March between the local fire department (Tampa Bay Firefighters) and the Miami area police department (South Florida Finest). The proceeds will hep offset some of our costs.

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