Harpswell resident Joy Johnson founded Embrace a Vet, the organization that would become Maine Paws for Veterans, in 2012.

When Harpswell’s Joy Johnson, daughter of a Navy pilot and spouse of a career naval officer, learned in 2012 about an epidemic of veterans dying by suicide, the retired social worker didn’t just lament the grim statistic. Instead, she sent an email to several friends that said, “We need to do something about this!” Within a week, she hosted a seminar about therapies for post-traumatic stress disorder in her home. Soon after, the nonprofit Embrace a Vet, which later became Maine Paws for Veterans, was born. This year, the organization marks its 10-year anniversary.

Johnson started out by offering free retreats to veterans at scenic locations around Maine, which were staffed by medical professionals and licensed counselors, and included therapies like meditation, acupuncture, acupressure, reiki, and emotional freedom technique, which involves tapping pressure points to cope with stress.

At the time, 22 veterans per day were dying by suicide. While programs like Maine Paws and others have helped improve veterans’ mental health, the need is still great. Recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that 17 veterans die by suicide every day. Contributing factors can include PTSD. Anywhere from 10% to 30% of combat veterans have it, depending on the conflict in which they served, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Almost 9% of Maine residents are veterans, the eighth-highest concentration in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Encouraged by the positive impact the retreats were having on participants, Johnson expanded the therapeutic program to include psychiatric service dogs. Unlike service animals that help with physical challenges, such as guiding people who are blind or alerting those who are deaf, psychiatric service dogs are trained to help people with conditions like PTSD. For example, they can calm their handler during an anxiety attack or serve as a buffer between their handler and other people, such as in a crowded line at a grocery store.

“The moment there is a trigger, or an anxiety or stress behavior will start, the dog is cued to create an intervention,” said Tracy Shaw, executive director of Maine Paws for Veterans. “During a panic attack, it could drape its body over the handler’s lap, like a weighted blanket. Or if the handler is at a restaurant and their leg is shaking under the table, the dog will lean in, to ground the handler.”

“Many veterans live isolated lives and don’t go out as much as they used to,” Shaw added. “The service dog creates a sense of security and allows the veteran to get out and about,” which has a positive impact on their mental health.

Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. David Vaughn with his service dog, Suki, a standard poodle. Vaughn serves as a board member and volunteer with Maine Paws for Veterans.

Shaw, also a military daughter and spouse, took the helm of the nonprofit in 2018 as its first employee. Johnson had died of pancreatic cancer in 2016. As volunteers carried on her mission, the organization decided to focus on and expand its service dog training program, and renamed itself Maine Paws for Veterans. The nonprofit does not receive any government funding but instead relies on donations and grants from individuals, businesses and foundations.

Its current iteration, which remains free to participants, consists of an intensive 26-week curriculum whereby veterans train their own service dogs at the nonprofit’s Brunswick location. Participants can bring their own dog, such as their family pet, or Maine Paws will match them with an appropriate canine, including some that have been fostered by its volunteers and graduates.

Sessions start with basics in dog care and training, then progress to service-oriented tasks, such as navigating public spaces, like stores, restaurants and public transportation. Dogs learn how to apply deep pressure or cover their handlers, and how to recognize cues and learn responses that will help their individual handler.

“Being able to see the progress veterans made, what they learned, and seeing people in much better shape” after the trainings was gratifying for Johnson, said Roy Driver, a licensed clinical professional counselor, Maine Paws volunteer and board member, and longtime friend of Johnson’s.

Since 2012, more than 130 veterans have graduated from the service dog training program. Driver has helped the organization measure its impact. He designed and implemented a survey for participants to rate various PTSD symptoms from 1 to 5, which they do at the start and finish of the program, as well as two months later. “It’s evident from the survey that many people who were at a 5 were down to a 3 or 2 or lower after the program,” he said.

David Vaughn (second from right) and Suki pose for a photo with fellow participants in a 2021 refresher training with Maine Paws for Veterans.

David Vaughn, a retired Air Force major who served two combat tours in the Vietnam War as a forward air controller, has felt the impact of Maine Paws firsthand. He became involved with the nonprofit in 2017 and trained his own service dog, a standard poodle named Suki, in 2020 to help with his PTSD. Beyond the tactical and psychological calming influence Suki has had on Vaughn, he values the sense of community among veterans.

When military bases like Brunswick’s close, often the commissary, where active-duty military and veterans sit together and swap stories, goes with them — and the sense of community among those with common experiences is lost, Vaughn said.

Vaughn said that some vets hesitate to get involved with organizations like Maine Paws, believing that if they admit they are struggling, they will be labeled as weak. But many who go through the program come back as volunteers because it meant so much to them.

“When you’re on active duty, you work together as a team, and only very rarely as a total individual — you have to gain strength as a group. The whole concept of Maine Paws is developing a sense of community and renewing a sense of belonging. Joy recognized that,” Vaughn said.

“We’re serving a community that is underserved and needs more attention,” Vaughn said. “The very least we can do is help other vets.”

In addition to its annual springtime founder’s fund event, which honors Johnson’s work and legacy while raising money for the nonprofit, Maine Paws has an upcoming fundraising drive for Veterans Day, on Nov. 11. More information is available at mainepawsforveterans.org

Deirdre Bannon is an independent journalist based in Brunswick whose work focuses on restorative narratives, particularly regarding racial, gender and economic equity.