Vet’s Best Friend

by Jim Bisco

This was originally published in the UB School of Social Work magazine Mosaics, Spring 2015 issue

Research investigates effect shelter dog rehabilitation has on combat veterans

Those normally part of the bustling traffic of the UB Student Union were halted in their hurried tracks during a lunchtime last year by the presence of two shelter dogs at an exhibit table. They were, in a sense, manning an exhibit for an organization called Dog Tags Niagara with their human companions who were military veterans.

Jacob Silver, a junior in biomedical sciences, was among those who paused. A Marine Corps veteran himself carrying on his education after two tours in Afghanistan, he struck up a conversation with Mike, an Iraq war veteran dealing with transition and adjustment to civilian life, who proceeded to explain how Dog Tags turned his life around, and how it’s doing the same for fellow vets experiencing the after-effects of combat. The dogs looked as though they wanted to extol the benefits of the program as well.

White pit bull dog standing, on a leash, with dog blanket of khaki and pink.

Jewell, a (deaf) rescue dog

Thinking the mission of Dog Tags Niagara would make for a highly relevant research project, the pre-med student began to send emails out to various UB departments, eventually grabbing the attention of SSW Research Professor Thomas Nochajski.

Picture of white man with white hair blue shirt , in front of screen with slide saying

Professor Thomas Nochajski

Nochajski felt that the research idea would be fitting for the Joining Forces-UB program, a collaborative project between the SSW and the UB School of Nursing aimed at training students to better care for veterans coming to them in a health care setting, whether for their mental or physical health.

“The other part of this is that we wanted to do research in the community with families and veterans outside of the Veterans Administration (VA) system because most of what you see about veterans tends to come from either VAs themselves or VA-sponsored research,” he relates. “We wanted to go outside of that because we know that the large portion of veterans don’t get their care from the VA. They go to private providers.”

As a wounded Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, Nochajski knows combat. “But I also know that combat is an individual thing. The overall traumatic experience is the same, it’s how that gets interpreted by the individuals. That has a big role in this,” he explains.

Baseball cap with

Joe Ruszala, an Army Vietnam veteran, helped launch the Dog Tags Niagara program at the Niagara County SPCA on Veterans Day 2013. Its mission is to heal the wounded soldier whose damages are unseen, and to heal the wounded animal whose trust has been broken.

Joe Ruszala, Vietnam Veteran

Joe Ruszala, Vietnam Veteran

A passionate advocate of the program’s benefits, Ruszala indicates teh Dog Tags logo features a shield with a silhouette of a pit bull looking up to a silhouette of a soldier framed by a banner stating, “Freedom’s best friend to man’s best friend.” The pit bull, he acknowledges, has become the “throwaway dog” of today. The Niagara County shelter, like most others, is filled with the breed. He draws an analogy to how the veteran feels. “When they come home, they don’t fit. They identify with pit bulls because they’re going through the same darn thing, so there’s common ground there.”

The veterans work with the abused or abandoned dogs at the shelter, making regular visits with the intent of rehabilitating the dogs for adoption. In the process, they are helping themselves. Nochajski calls it a “two-way street of healing.” He is researching the effects of this project on both the veterans and dogs through a series of interviews with the participating veterans, SPCA staff, and those who have adopted the dogs. Silver is glad to be included in the research interviews, as is Brad Linn, doctoral student graduate research assistant.

Woman and man, seated, are petting a white pit bull dog. The dog is enjoyin gthe attention.

Military veterans with Jewell.

This is a low-pressure way for the veterans to connect with another living creature. If they’re having a bad day or feeling kind of blue, they’ll go to the SPCA and work with the dog. There’s something about that process that’s really helpful for the vet,” says Linn.

“A lot of these guys are struggling with their identity. They’re not in the service anymore, so they’re trying to find themselves again and incorporate their experience in the military into their identity.”

Nochajski indicates that the preliminary research results support what might be expected given the literature and research on pet therapy.

Jewell is attentive during the Joining Forces-UB Brown Bag Lunch. Jewell is a graduate of Dog Tags and a newly certified therapy dog. She stole the show!

Jewell is attentive during the Joining Forces-UB Brown Bag Lunch. Jewell is a graduate of Dog Tags and a newly certified therapy dog. She stole the show!

“When the vets get the dogs, the vets are in a situation where they feel like they’ve been abused and tossed away. The dogs are in the same situation. So they can communicate,” he observes.

Professor Lisa Butler

Professor Lisa Butler

Associate Professor Lisa Butler, principal investigator of Joining Forces-UB, feels the Dog Tags project is particularly fitting for the program’s objectives.

“By bringing a focus to veteran, service member and military family research at UB, we hope to bring together interested veteran students and others in the local veteran community to collaborate with first-rate researchers like Dr. Nochajski on research to benefit these populations.”

Ruszala happily has been seeing results firsthand as the vets help socialize the outcast dogs. “Not only does the dog begin to mend, we see the vets begin to heal too. What happens is that it gives the vets purpose and that addresses a lot of subjects. Veteran suicides are 22 a day. We know why that happens. If you don’t have a reason to get up in the morning, you won’t. But if you do, if you’re working with (dogs) Ripley, or Toro, or Bubba, and he expects you to be there on Friday, you’ll be there on Friday. That’s what gives these guys a direction to continue on, and gives them purpose to the point where they can get down into manageable levels and reengage.”

A group of 7 people gathered around the white pit bull. all smiling.

Dog Tags Niagara staff, UB researchers and Jewell.

Look for more Mosaics stories here.

Bisco, Jim (2015, April). Vet’s Best Friend. Mosaics. Retrieved July 27, 2015 from


  • This article is a great inspiration and this is an outstanding project to have in the works. I think it’s great to see that a student in one field was to connection with a faculty member in a completely different field to make this idea come to life. Being a student at UB and an avid dog lover, I think its great to take a more expanding group of individuals in need and give them an outlet that is much different from what most people would plan for them; I also feel that it’s so inspiring to use a breed of dog that is given such an awful stigma and pairing them up with individuals that are also given a stigma when they come home. I think that since both groups are put in a place either when they come home or even when they are born that they are given a label and its not really given a second chance. I think this could lead into a larger project and an even larger message to the community.

  • Of the more than three million veterans who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq (, the National Center for PTSD indicates that the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is 11% to 20% ( Veterans who have experienced this trauma need trauma-informed care. It struck me when reading the “Vet’s Best Friend” post that Dog Tags Niagara teams up dogs and veterans to provide each other with trauma-informed care. The Trauma-Informed Community Initiative of Western New York ( states that the five pillars of trauma-informed care are safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, and empowerment. It is easy to feel safe with dogs. They do not have any complicated emotions to deal with. A wagging tail and a doggie grin can sway even the most guarded individual. Dogs clearly want to trust people. Show them a little kindness and they are your friend. They do not care what is “wrong” with you. Nobody will trust you more consistently than a dog. Once a dog trusts you, they are happy to give you the control. They will go along with whatever choice you make. Dogs are team players. Collaboration is fine with them. A dog will be by your side through any task. Make friends with a dog and they will love you forever. Nothing is more supportive and empowering than unconditional love.

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