Editor's note: Helping Hands is a Sunday column offering our area nonprofit groups a chance to talk about their work. If your group would like to be considered for participation, email jperry@dlnewspapers.com. This column is by Susan Pizarro for Patriot Assistance Dogs.

For eight years, Patriot Assistance Dogs has provided highly trained psychiatric service dogs to disabled veterans at no cost to the veteran.

These dogs are trained to respond to the physical, emotional and physiological changes in their veteran; to sense and interrupt panic attacks, flashbacks and night terrors. They are trained to touch and nudge with their nose and/or paws, and even cuddle their veteran by putting their paws up onto the veteran’s body.

To be honest I am one of these veterans, deployed to Iraq from 2003 to 2004. Just months before receiving my service dog, I was close to ending my life. I was seeing a counselor, taking medication, and doing all the “right” things.

Unfortunately, I suffered silently from the war still stuck in my mind. Lights were too bright, sounds were too loud, and memories too hard to face. It took great effort to even breathe. Living was like drowning in a sea of grey nothing.

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One day, I went to the VA for an appointment. I saw a man there with a dog and learned about Patriot Assistance Dogs. I had never had a dog and wasn’t sure what a dog could do for me but made a last-ditch effort for life and applied. Patriot Assistance Dogs took my heart and gave it to a dog.

Shandy is my service dog. She has helped me sleep better, breathe easier and reduce my medication load. She helps me see life as something to be lived and celebrated, not merely survived. Shandy changed my world.

Now I work part-time for Patriot Assistance Dogs, helping other veterans find purpose and a fresh start with service dogs of their own.

These dogs can provide a barrier between the veteran and other people, watch behind their veteran, find the nearest exit for their veteran and provide medication reminders. These are all trained tasks that mitigate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, traumatic brain injuries, military sexual trauma and other psychiatric ailments.

Patriot Assistance Dogs is committed to lowering the number of suicide completions (currently 22 per day) in a way that therapy and medication alone cannot offer. Patriot Assistance Dogs acquires 70 to 80% of the dogs in the program from local rescues, city pounds and shelters. The rest come from private donors and breeders. Each service dog costs approximately $10,000 to $15,000, depending on training and medical needs.

Patriot Assistance Dogs rescues these dogs so they can rescue our veterans.

To date, there are 193 certified teams. Patriot Assistance Dogs is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, registered in Minnesota and is funded solely through the generosity of individuals, groups and businesses that believe in supporting our veterans not only while deployed, but also as they struggle to reintegrate into a country/society that seems to have all but forgotten them.

Each veteran has his or her own story to tell. Most of the dogs in this program have their own rescue story as well. Both of us picked up, brushed off and given to one another to find confidence and the courage to see another day.

Please join Patriot Assistance Dogs in their mission to serve those who served and together, we can find the forgotten and give them new hope!

If you are interested in having an educator or veteran team share their story at a future function, please let us know. Do not hesitate to call or email us with any questions concerning the Patriot Assistance Dogs program, what we do or whom we serve.

Patriot Assistance Dogs