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Coming Home: Project ROVER

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Veterans who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can have a hard time functioning in public, let alone on the job. Project ROVER wants to see if man's best friend can help.

Project ROVER, or Returning Our Veterans to Employment and Reintegration, is a new partnership between West Virginia University's Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

"There's a lot of effort out there to try and identify jobs for returning service members," said Matthew Wilson, the interim director of the Davis College, "but if they've got psychological issues that make it hard for them to function in the workplace, we may be able to get over that particular hurdle simply by providing them with a dog trained to alleviate some of their hypersensitivity."

It worked for Bridgeport resident Clay Rankin and his first dog Archie.

"The post-traumatic part of it became less and less by having him with me," Rankin described. "He would put himself between me and other people to give me that buffer zone that I needed. He would wake me up at night if I was having nightmares. He would sense I was going into a flashback, he would poke me with his snout and what it would is it would bring me back to reality."

Stories like Rankin's haven't been enough to get funding to help veterans take care of the dogs or to give them public access like seeing-eye dogs. Right now, dogs that help with the symptoms of PTSD are considered "therapy dogs" instead of "service dogs" which means they're not allowed in most public places, the very places veterans may need the most help.

Rankin will help the project choose veterans to test just what effect the dogs have on them at NIOSH.

"They'll have a simulated workplace and they'll actually pair them with a dog that's been trained to do a task," Wilson said, "and try to objectively measure whether the dog is able to alleviate some of their distress associated with their symptoms of PTSD."

The dogs that will be used in the tests are part of Hearts of Gold, a service organization trained through WVU.

While Rankin first received his service dog because of a disability, it's clear to him that many of the young men and women now returning from combat face are severely debilitated from PTSD. Service dogs could become one way of getting around the symptoms, like a seizure service dog that can detect changes before an incident strikes.

"Those people who are diagnosed and qualify and get a doctor to sign off saying that they need this sort of animal," he said, "it's the difference between being homebound and being able to go out into the public. Which would you rather have?"