Pets and Vets program fosters and trains rescue dogs to change veterans’ lives

Veterans suffering from PTSD and other psychological issues are finding comfort and companionship from rescue dogs trained to be service animals.

Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation in Walnut Creek has run the Pets and Vets program since 2018, matching rescue dogs with veterans at no cost to them.

"She’s been my lifesaver," said veteran Jeff Thomas about his K-9 Maddie. "I’m not sure I’d even be here if I didn’t have her."

Thomas was an Air Force sergeant stationed in Germany during the Cold War. He said he has struggled with PTSD for decades.

"I didn’t sleep at night. It was just horrible," Thomas said. "So I took it upon myself to say, ‘hey, I need some help.’"

That help came with four legs, a big heart and an appetite.

After Maddie was rescued and fostered, Thomas trained with her for months until she became a certified service animal.

She’s just one of the many dogs that have gone through the Pets and Vets program.


The dogs have helped reduce anxiety, inspire relationship building, lower blood pressure and renew a sense of purpose for veterans.

"We say the program is saving both ends of the leash," said Erin Thompson with the Animal Rescue Foundation. "It’s helping the rescue dogs and the veteran, and we need volunteers to help be part of that."

Thompson said there’s a unique opportunity for community members to give back to veterans by fostering a rescue dog for a few weeks. Those families help determine if the dog would be a good candidate for the program.

It’s something Thompson has done six times.

"Every time I hear about one of the dogs I’ve fostered getting matched with a veteran, it just makes me so happy because I know they’re starting this journey together that’s going to change both of their lives," she said.

Pets and Vets has also given the participants a new community of fellow veterans. Dozens have traumatic brain injuries, severe depression, or PTSD.

Thomas said they’re a family and since getting Maddie has slept better, been less stressed and improved his mood.

"She’s my hero," he said. "She saved my life and to me that’s what heroes do."