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W Operation Freedom Paws How Training Dogs Helps Veterans Heal Written By Jordan Rosenfeld hen retired former Army veteran, Mary Cortani, a resident of San Martin, found herself let go from a job in high tech for the first time ever in 2001, she decided to reinvent herself by drawing upon her years training dogs in the ser- vice and offer basic obedience training to owners. When a struggling marine called her up, desperate, searching for a service dog and someone to help him train it, Mary cautiously offered to help. “I could tell in his voice that if some- body didn’t step up and help him, he probably wouldn’t be here today,” she told TODAY. That first offer turned into several more through word of mouth and within less than two years she’d trained 39 veterans and started the seed of Operation Freedom Paws, a non- profit organization that pairs dogs and military veterans with varying forms of PTSD; teaching them how to train their own dogs. She has been officially licensed as a non-profit organization since 2011. In 2012, Cortani was gmh 34 awarded a Top 10 Heroes award from the CNN Heroes program, which “celebrates ordinary people making extraordinary contributions to improve the lives of others,” according to the website. The Psychological Scars of War Military veterans often return from deployment with deep psychological wounds as well as physical injuries. Symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can range from depression, anxiety, and panic attacks to nightmares, which can lead to isolating from important relationships and secluding themselves in their homes. Veterans, as well as law enforcement and first responders like fire fighters and EMTs, experience “a moral injury,” Cortani said. “The soul has been damaged from having to make a conscious choice to pull the trigger or to do something that goes against your moral compass. It causes harm on a deeper level.” These psychological injuries have long-lasting, life-altering effects that even therapy or medication alone cannot always heal. At Operation Freedom Paws’ compound in San Martin, Cortani and her GILROY • MORGAN HILL • SAN MARTIN JULY/AUGUST 2017 staff pull dogs from shelters and rescue centers after a thirty-step assessment, and match them to veterans through a process her assistant calls “alchemy.” Cortani insists it’s just basic reading of people through body language, deep listening, and compassion. Service dogs are typically trained by giving them tasks they can alert to, such as guiding a person who can’t see, or helping balance a person with mobility issues. Cortani was convinced she could find a task for the dogs related to PTSD. “I thought, if we can teach dogs to smell drugs and explosives, then why can’t we train them for the human chemistry?” In fact, they could. In a person with PTSD, normal everyday sights, sounds, and smells can trigger a flash- back, wrenching them from the present moment and dropping them back into the event of their trauma. “As that sight or sound is occurring, the chemistry in their body shifts,” Cortani said. And before it becomes a full blown crisis, the dogs can alert their person to help break the cycle. Dogs can help guide their people away from a crowd that gmhtoday.com