BROOKSVILLE (FOX 13) - With a virtual epidemic of suicides among veterans, the Department of Defense is helping fund a pilot program to see if specially-trained service dogs can help.
Aquino is one of those dogs. He's an Australian Labradoodle, but he's much more than a dog to Sonny, an Iraq veteran who suffers from PTSD.
"He's a wonderful person -- I mean, a wonderful dog," said Sonny, choking back tears. “He's helped me through the adjustments of becoming a civilian from a soldier."
They're in a program called K9 Partners for Patriots in Hernando County. Since it started three years ago, nearly 100 veterans have been matched with service dogs, many of which were rescued from shelters.
"I rescued Cherokee when she was a puppy and so I think Cherokee's rescuing me now," offered Becky, a veteran who says her dog Cherokee has changed her life by helping her relax enough to enjoy social situations.
Before she got the service dog, she says, she rarely left her house, except for work.
The dogs can be any breed, but they're tested to see if they can smell the adrenaline that comes when a veteran has a flashback or a nightmare. The dog then draws their attention away from the episode -- doing their job.
"To get them a dog that didn't do that would be providing them with a pet, and they don't need a pet, they need help," explained Mary Pete, founder and CEO of K9 Partners for Patriots.
The 19-week course trains dogs to help with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and military sexual trauma.
Mary used to lead a K9 search and rescue unit, but then she saw what dogs could do for veterans in crisis.
"We're had them come and sit outside and just cry and somebody had to sit with them for about an hour before we could get them in here."
But when they do get them in, she said, they see lives change -- as it did with Aquino and Sonny.
"I don't know why I got him, but I'm sure glad I did," continued Sonny.
LINK: For more information, click over to https://k9partnersforpatriots.com/