Kay Schreiner knows first-hand just how much dogs can help survivors of domestic violence.
Marsoc, her 5-year-old Belgian Malinois, “saved me,” said Schreiner, herself a survivor.
“I didn’t want to leave the house, not even to go grocery shopping. Overcoming that was so difficult, and without him I wouldn’t have been able to,” she said.
Marsoc provided protection, emotional support and a “way back into the world,” she said.
“My relationships with my family and friends suffered,” Schreiner said. “I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was struggling. My only saving grace was my dog. I felt safe with him.”
The experience inspired Schreiner, a former animal trainer at SeaWorld, to start Paws Against Domestic Violence, a nonprofit that provides trained service dogs to domestic violence survivors free of charge. It opened this month at the same location as her commercial dog training facility in St. Cloud.
“A lot of times women don’t want to talk about what they’ve gone through. They don’t want to be considered a victim,” she said. “A service dog can help them with the process of getting their identity back.”
Service dogs are highly trained to assist people with disabilities to accomplish tasks that are part of daily living. For years they have helped people with visual and hearing impairments and spinal cord injuries.
In recent years, service dogs have been trained to help with other challenges, such as diabetes, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder.
According to the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, more than half of all battered women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Certain situations, objects or even people can cause someone with PTSD to re-experience the trauma, producing a prolonged fight-or-flight response in the body that can be debilitating.
Studies have shown that service dogs can reduce symptoms of PTSD in war veterans, but little is known about how they affect civilians suffering from PTSD.
An application process will help Schreiner pair survivors with dogs that fit their specific needs, whether it’s for companionship, for emotional support or for protection.
“All of them will provide emotional support in a sense just because they will always be at that person’s side,” she said. “And a service dog can sometimes be the only support system that some victims have. Sometimes they don’t get that from their families because of the stigma of staying with the abuser.”
However, there are specific commands for protection, such as “cover,” which prompts the dog to break a sit if it sees danger while the handler is occupied on a task, such as withdrawing money from an ATM.
“They’re also really good with reading behaviors. It provides a sense of security knowing your dog has your back,” she said.
“I think the whole reason I went through this was to help people. I’m blessed that I was able to take something so detrimental to me and to those around me and turn it around into something positive,” Schreiner said.
Paws Against Domestic Violence is holding a kick-off fundraiser that is open to the public on Dec. 29, from 2 to 5 p.m. at 4365 Rambler Ave. in St. Cloud.