Service dogs helping veterans heal

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Wounded veterans who are suffering from an injury or PTSD are able to regain their independence and rebuild their lives with the support of a service dog.

“Paddington has given me more reasons to live, more comfort than I could have imagined,” said veteran Michael O’Connell.

O’Connell, of Sammamish, was matched with his service dog, Paddington, one year ago. O’Connell was injured while serving as a Military Police Officer from 1972 to 1975. Since then, he has struggled both physically and mentally.

“In the last decade or so, or two decades now, it’s been more difficult. And so that plus the stress of life caused depression. And at times suicidal depression,” said O’Connell.

A standard poodle, Paddington has become much more than a service dog to O’Connell. Paddington not only provides physical balance, but also companionship and a path to healing.

“Giving me strength and emotional strength, mental health strength that I didn’t have before,” said O’Connell.

A life changing partnership is at the heart of the Brigadoon Service Dogs’ mission in Bellingham.

“So many of the veterans wouldn’t even leave their house or wouldn’t leave their room, got disconnected from their family, when they got back. And once they got this best friend of theirs, it gave them their life back,” said co-founder and Executive Director Denise Costanten.

Costanten has dedicated nearly two decades to training service dogs for veterans, children and adults.

“Dogs have a natural tendency as soon as you put your hands on them they lower your blood pressure, and calm you down,” said Costanten.

Costanten also started a program for incarcerated veterans who live with and help train future service dogs.

“Really gave me a sense of purpose. You know I had really strayed from a lot of my values, which of course led to my incarceration,” said Daniel Sammons, a trainer for Brigadoon.

The Brigadoon Dog Program at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen provided Sammons with hope for a better future. After he was released, Sammons was hired by Costanten as a trainer.

“That’s the beauty of being able to reconnect with Brigadoon out here, is that inside when you are working with the program, you know the dogs ultimate destination is to help these lives, but when you get out here and you are able to witness it,” said Sammons.

This transformative journey is not only for puppies, but for everyone who shares their mission—to serve those who have served.

“To know that he is going to go to a veteran, and it’s going to help his life, then it reminds me of why I do this,” said Costanten.

A special bond has helped O’Connell turn his life around with a new purpose.

“It’s like he’s my spirit guide, it’s like he’s my helper in giving me the love, the cuddles, and all of the things that I need to get through those tough times,” said O’Connell.

Brigadoon Service Dogs trains and provides dogs at no cost to veterans made possible by donations and grants. For information on the program, visit: https://www.brigadoondogs.org/