CASPER, Wyo. — Carol Salveson got a phone call in March 2017. It’s the kind of phone call that no parent should ever have to take.
Bobby was a decorated Green Beret who had served two tours, one in Afghanistan and the other in Iraq. He was home, and he should’ve been safe. But like so many friends and families of veterans have found out, the war doesn’t always stop when a serviceperson comes home.
During that phone call, Carol learned that her son, Bobby Doolan, had died by suicide. He was 30.
“It was after he got out, and nobody had a clue [that something was wrong],” Carol said.
Soon, she gathered with Bobby’s friends and fellow veterans to walk through the fog of grief and loss. Even as she dealt with her own shock and agony, she immediately noticed something else.
“They came out in full force to support him and support us, and I could see all the hurting,” she said. “How can I help?”
“He loved dogs, and I love dogs,” Carol said. It soon became clear that perhaps dogs would be the answer.
She retired from her job as a vocational teacher for special needs students, and within weeks — with no prior dog training experience — was with one of the nation’s top dog trainers in Illinois for a crash course. She learned basic training and dog psychology first in May, then went back the following month for specific therapy dog training. “It was really intensive,” she said, “but she was an amazing trainer.”
Service dogs aren’t just friendly dogs, though that’s certainly an important factor. They also have work to do. They gently intervene when they sense anxiety, or interrupt nightmares, Carol said.
The dog is also a portal back into society, helping break barriers between the veteran and other people. “We don’t want the dog to cut the veteran off from society,” she said, “so that’s why we mostly use labs and doodles, and sometimes shepherds.”
Labs have traditionally possessed the magic temperament for therapy. They’re on when they need to be, but can also quickly calm down and relax. Doodles are increasing in popularity, mainly because they tend to be less irritating to people with allergies.
“Typically, veterans will have some symptoms when they start to get nervous,” she said, “like they’ll shake their leg, so we train the dog to interrupt that shaking.”
Trembling hands or clenched fists are also cues to the service dog, she said.
Beignet, a friendly brown and white bernedoodle that Carol trained, sits by her side in Carol’s Mills facility. His eyes seldom stray from Carol. As she demonstrates having a trembling hand, Beignet immediately springs up, gently nudges her hand and makes puppy-eyed contact.
“One of the veterans describes it as grounding them, so the dog helps to ground them and bring them back from their thoughts to their current situation,” she said.
Humans and dogs are hardwired to connect emotionally, she said. “When you make eye contact with a dog, it releases oxytocin, which is a ‘love hormone,’ for both you and the dog, so that helps the calming process,” she said. “The process of just petting them is also very therapeutic.”
Carol works with the nonprofit Project Kenny, a Seattle-based all-volunteer organization that trains and donates service dogs for veterans. Carol’s son was stationed in Seattle, which is how she came to find the organization.
Her operation costs are covered with grants and donations. And those costs aren’t small. Most of the dogs are purchased from breeders. Rescue dogs do sometimes make it through the program, but unfortunately many of them come with too many pre-existing habits or past issues that make them difficult to train for this kind of work. The training process takes up to two years, so taking a risk on the wrong animal can be challenging.
Currently she has about a dozen dogs at her facility in Mills. “They all stay here, and then I’ll take a couple home and bring them back, then take a couple others home, so that they all have a chance to live in a home for a while,” she said.
There’s a long waiting list for local veterans, she said. It’s about 45 deep now. “So the local veterans, I tell them if they have a dog or can find a dog, they can train it themselves, and I will help them train a service dog,” she said.
Carol can’t quite explain her fast move from devastation to training therapy dogs. “I don’t know how I got to that point so quickly,” she said. “It’s a God thing.”
But the pain is still there, of course. She can’t talk about her son without tearing up, but time does mute the pain. And she shares that pain with thousands of other parents and family members of veterans who have died by suicide over the years. In the year 2020 alone, the VA attributes 6,146 veteran deaths to suicide.
The dogs are her therapy, she said. And her mission is to give others that therapy.
“They say 20 to 22 veterans die by suicide every day; just think of how many wives, mothers and children [are affected].”
“If we can save one life, that makes it all worth it.”
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of harming themselves, please call 911. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “WYO” to 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.