A Man’s Best Friend: Duo’s K9 Bridge 4 Heroes

Mental health affects all aspects of a person’s life – from how they think and feel to how they make choices or relate to others.

Rates of mental health conditions have been increasing for years, and our strong network of local organizations is dedicated to helping people get connected with the resources they need. In 2020, United Way and its partner nonprofits helped more than 23,180 local people experience fewer behavioral, mental and emotional symptoms.

Focusing on improving access to treatment is important. And that’s why our safety net nonprofit partner Duo Dogs’ newest venture – a program dedicated to connecting its service dogs with veterans and first responders living with post-traumatic stress disorder – is critical to a healthier St. Louis region.

Duo Dogs is Helping Here
An estimated 1 in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. PTSD is caused by a traumatic event, and many living with PTSD have difficulty adjusting and coping with life after the trauma. Duo’s K9 Bridge 4 Heroes program aids clients on this journey to adjustment.

“Our dogs in K9 Bridge 4 Heroes are trained to be a bridge between a veteran or a first responder living with PTSD and the rest of the world,” said Susanne Schenberg Wandling, director of canine services at Duo. “We are teaching these clients to read the dog’s body language, meaning that if the dog is not alarmed by a noise or event – the veteran doesn’t need to be alarmed either. They [veterans] know that their dog has their back.”

Although K9 Bridge 4 Heroes is still in its early stages, many veterans and first responders are reaching out to be connected with a dog. The program is tailored to each person and their specific need. Duo looks at a variety of factors before creating a match, such as energy levels, housing and family situations, and the interaction with the potential match. “There’s no forcing; they are dictating the pace and are empowered to choose what feels right,” said Susanne.

How Duo turned a life around

Susanne recently followed up with the program’s first client, Nick, and his support dog Chumley. Nick is a veteran who experiences nightmares and night terrors and has trouble being in public with others and fears of driving a car. This was having a significant impact on Nick’s quality of life and time he could spend with his loved ones.

But now, Chumley will calm Nick down after a nightmare by laying next to him and resting his head on his chest, letting him know he is there. And after just 30 days with the program and Chumley, Nick is more confident being in public, traveling with his family and talking with people at local stores.

Those living with PTSD can have difficulty completing tasks that others may not think twice about, like getting a haircut. Nick shared that he has always had anxiety during haircuts because of the small talk, but that this past haircut, he brought Chumley along, and he found himself engaging in good conversation and feeling comfortable.

“I have been focusing on self-love and self-care and taking time for myself,” said Nick. “[My life] It’s turning around. Not sure I would be able to do it without Chumley.”

With United Way’s support, Duo is able to help place dogs in homes at no charge, so they can assist people like Nick. Duo has more than 350 support dogs across all their programs helping people in the St. Louis region with assistance, touch therapy and in facilities.

“It’s amazing how all of these dogs are improving somebody’s life. But especially with these PTSD dogs, they are really saving lives,” said Susanne.

Looking forward

It’s programs like Duo’s that are helping here in the St. Louis region. Together, we continue to listen and respond to our community’s needs. Helping to increase access to healthcare through our network of local nonprofits’ programs and supports. Helping people to live their best possible lives.

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Alexandra Council is a proud Mizzou alumna, editor and St. Louis native who enjoys correcting grammar for fun. Besides pinpointing misplaced commas, she believes in hardcover books over Kindles and won’t turn down a good Netflix recommendation.

James Taylor
James Taylor