Dogs ease veterans' trauma at Bay Area VA center

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MENLO PARK — The black Labrador retriever knew something was wrong. He refused to leave the side of Sandro , repeatedly nuzzling the troubled man, trying to comfort him.

It was the anniversary of that terrible 2003 day in Iraq when Navarro was the first to arrive at a blast scene that killed two friends in his Army unit and severely wounded a third. Somehow, the dog named Jason realized he was distraught.

“It was like he was telling me, ‘I’m going to keep licking your face until you stop feeling down, and I going to make you smile by doing something goofy,’ ” said Navarro, 36.

Some of man’s best friends are playing an innovative role in the VA Palo Alto Men’s Recovery Program as four-legged therapy for finding their way through the darkness of post-traumatic stress disorder, thanks to Paws for Purple Hearts. The dogs are so perceptive they even will awaken vets from nightmares.

But there’s also a dual purpose to the program. Some of the veterans who come to the VA’s Menlo Park campus from around the country for military-related PTSD treatment are helping train the canines to become service dogs for physically disabled vets.

“It’s a reward knowing where Jason will go because there are guys far worse off than I am,” said Navarro, a Southern California native who lives in Tennessee.

At a home in Modesto, a golden retriever named Venuto is an example of that reward. Veteran William Smith, who uses a wheelchair, said his service dog can pick up loose change and gives him a sense of security. And Smith is gratified knowing that Venuto helped 21 vets in the

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