Saving Lives One Animal At A Time

Published 11:06 am Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Can veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder benefit from service dogs or emotional support dogs? That’s the question Veterans Administration researchers hope to answer in a three-year study launched earlier this year.

Karren Cooper, a local veteran who owns and operates Safe Haven Horse Rescue, knows the answer. For her, it is an emphatic “yes.”

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Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and subject to seizures, Cooper has relied on service dogs since she left the military. The local veteran believes her disabilities give her a special empathy for injured and abused animals.

“I think that’s another reason I do this,” Cooper said of her rescue operation. “As much as I help these animals, they help me, too.”

I tend to agree. Since I first met Cooper in 2011 to report on her horse rescue operation I have personally witnessed the value of support animals both large and small.

Horses have recently been recognized for their value as support animals, especially in therapeutic riding programs.

In another horse-related article I wrote in 2008, the founder of Heartland Horse Heroes, Amy Alliston, said: “Therapeutic riding can produce significant physical gains in posture, balance, arm and leg strength, coordination, and back and neck strength. More than any other animal, the horse replicates human walking. Riding a horse gives a person who can’t walk a real sense of walking.”

While Safe Haven focuses more on horse rescue and rehabilitation, finding a safe and loving home for each horse is also a priority.

Cooper expects prospective owners to spend time with a horse before adoption to see if their personalities mesh.

“I know this may sound silly,” she said. “But I leave it up to the Lord. The Lord knows if a horse doesn’t like you, then something’s not right.”

As a disabled veteran who depends on a service dog, Cooper has a special place in her heart for German shepherds.

“I also rescue shepherds,” she said.

Some of these dogs will be donated and trained as service dogs for other veterans with PTSD.

In a 2012 Herald article Cooper commented on a special service dog named Tia.

“Tia allowed me to trust,” Cooper said. “She took my little dark world and poked a hole in it. Tia taught me to live again — that’s what she did.”

Cooper understands the unique ability of animals to reach into the darkest corners of the human mind. Children also benefit from this animal-human connection.

I witnessed a recent example at a Fourth of July outing hosted by Safe Haven. A child in attendance wanted to jump in the pool but was terrified of the water until one of Cooper’s German shepherds jumped in as well. The dog paddled over and gave the boy a gentle nudge. Almost at once, sobs turned to smiles.

Cooper talked to the child’s grandmother after the event and later told me: “The boy’s grandmother was amazed that he went into the pool at all — and then wanted to stay. The boy told his grandmother that the dog told him it would be okay.”

Yes, dogs and other animals, too, have much to say, and it is encouraging that the Veterans Administration is taking the time to listen. Cooper already knows what their study will reveal: Dogs can and do save lives.

Whether it is a veteran who needs a helping hand or a child in need of courage, dogs and other animals are ready and willing to help.

Saving lives — one animal at a time — is an effort that deserves our support.

Marge Swayne is social editor of The Farmville Herald. Her email address is