Fire and Iron VS. TBI and PTSD

Matt Shobert

 ~ Now retired Fire Chief and Ironman athlete, Matt Shobert shares with us the details of his near fatal accident on the line, and how his life changed due to TBI / PTSD. His story of survival, which he attributes in part to his physical fitness, will inspire you. His experiences with PTSD since the accident have motivated him to speak out and share his story to assist fellow firefighters across the nation who may be suffering in silence, but also to help remove the stigma of PTS(d) for all.



Podcast available
Machine Transcript & Video:YouTube

 Introducing Matt Shobert

I thought I had a fair amount of initials after my name, but here’s Matt Shobert MA, EFO, CFO, MIFireE. Matt had been the Fire Chief for the Murrieta Fire Department (MFD) since March 2011, and has served as Fire Chief for two other jurisdictions prior to joining the MFD team. He holds a Master’s Degree in Organizational Management, a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management and an Associate’s Degree in Fire Science. He is also a 2007 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program, has been four times accredited as a Chief Fire Officer Designee (CFOD) and was recently conferred Membership into the Institution of Fire Engineers (MIFireE). Chief Shobert completed the arduous 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run - "140.6" Ironman Arizona in Tempe on 11/17/13. On top of that, he’s had a happy double-decade long marriage. He was living an exemplary life.

Matt’s Life-Changing Event

But everything changed on July 2, 2014. On that day, Chief Shobert was on a seemingly routine outing. He went out to a field to observe a brush clearing. Murrieta California is a hot, inland town and as any people are aware, brush fire prevention is a high priority in areas like this, especially in Southern California. The Chief was out by himself when the accident occurred. When you hear what happened to Chief Shobert, you can’t help but truly respect and appreciate his innate instincts to get himself help and his utter resiliency. The Chief shares the details of his accident for the first time publicly with me on the podcast. Please listen to hear Matt tell his story in his own words.


Matt went through several surgeries and still may be tasked with undergoing a few more. As you heard in the episode (if you didn’t listen yet, click here to do so), Matt is put together physically, but his emotional wounds are healing more slowly. The struggle is real. Matt is dealing with effects of both Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury. He has done extensive emotional therapy under the care of a Licensed Behavioral Health Clinician since the accident.

He has gone through avoiding the area of the accident (which he was hard-pressed to do when he still lived in Murietta), nightmares, anxiety/panic attacks, angry outbursts, suicidal thoughts, slow thought processes and general lack of interest in leaving his home at times or going to places where there may be crowds of people. Though his emotional struggles are daunting, he is getting better each day. He has incorporated exercise, continues his talk therapy, calls on emotional support from his wife and others and credits his dog, Butters, for giving him some added support and love, as well as forcing him to get out of his home and walk him as a major part of his recovery.

Matt has recently begin to train to become an Ironman athletic trainer – to keep him fit and to get back into the athletic world he misses. He’s looking forward to training others to accomplish their triathlon goals. He also is focusing his life towards telling his story as he did on this episode. He wants to help others understand the reality of what it’s like to live with post traumatic stress, and also to allow those in the fire service who are dealing with it feel less stigmatized and to ask for help when they need it. Matt is dedicating his life to giving back and helping others. A true example of personal resilience and resolve and restoration of hope for his new future.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

For more information on PTSD, please see our separate post on the subject here.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) of the National Institute of Health (NIH), Traumatic Brain Injury is described as follows:

"Traumatic brain injury (TBI), a form of acquired brain injury, occurs when a sudden trauma causes damage to the brain. TBI can result when the head suddenly and violently hits an object, or when an object pierces the skull and enters brain tissue. Symptoms of a TBI can be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on the extent of the damage to the brain. A person with a mild TBI may remain conscious or may experience a loss of consciousness for a few seconds or minutes. Other symptoms of mild TBI include headache, confusion, lightheadedness, dizziness, blurred vision or tired eyes, ringing in the ears, bad taste in the mouth, fatigue or lethargy, a change in sleep patterns, behavioral or mood changes, and trouble with memory, concentration, attention, or thinking. A person with a moderate or severe TBI may show these same symptoms, but may also have a headache that gets worse or does not go away, repeated vomiting or nausea, convulsions or seizures, an inability to awaken from sleep, dilation of one or both pupils of the eyes, slurred speech, weakness or numbness in the extremities, loss of coordination, and increased confusion, restlessness, or agitation."




Linked-in: matt-shobert-ma-efo-cfo-mifiree-ironman


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Fire Fighters Behavioral Health AllianceFFBHA

North American Fire Fighter Veteran Network:

Fire Fighters Wellness Initiative: IAFF WFI

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder via National Institute of Mental Health: PTSD/NIMH (

For local support in your community, check out the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill's page on PTSD Resources: NAMI/PTSD

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website offers a wealth of information on TBI, prognosis, treatment and resources if you or someone you care for is in need of help regarding their TBI (

National Resource Center for Traumatic Brain Injury :

Vets360 End the Stigma of PTS(d)

Rick Collins

~ Founder and executive director of ~ A veteran himself, Rick's mission is to help our new generation of returning combat veterans re-acclimatize to the society and freedom that they have been protecting. In this episode, set to release on tuesday 10/20, Rick speaks candidly about the need to remove the stigma of PTS(d), Carrying the Challenge, and Breaking Silence. Embodying the spirit of veterans helping their brethren, Rick is forthright and inspiring about the mission of

Podcast available
Machine Transcript & Video:YouTube

Carry the Challenge



We are used to hearing about the rates of Post traumatic Stress in our military veterans, but when we look across the board at the numbers of people in other high stress work environments, the numbers are not so different.

In researching this topic I found the numbers to be in a similar range for veterans, nurses and firefighters:

  • Veterans: Reports range from 20-31% of veterans from our current wars are being diagnosed with Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
  • Nurses: In a 2010 study of 332 nurses, they found that 22% had symptoms of PTSD and 18% met the full diagnostic criteria for it.
  • Firefighters: In studies done on firefighters, 7-37% are estimated to be diagnosed with PTSD. *We have a few guests coming up in future episodes who believe from their experience working in the departments that these numbers are terribly under-reported.
  • Teachers: We don’t have much by way of numbers on this population, but more and more teachers are reporting symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress given the current climate of school shootings taking place (see Episode 18 here).

Rick Collins and his team at Vets360 working to erase the reputation our troops get when they show signs of Post Traumatic Stress. Rick was inspired to start Vets 360 after 2 young marines he knew killed themselves. He believes that if we can give our troops the tools to reintegrate, there will be less distress for them during the process, thus allowing them to also get the help for dealing with the traumatic stress that they may need.


In this interview, you will hear:

  • How got started

  • The mission of Vets360
  • What they mean when they say, “Combat trauma is a natural extension of combat, not a personal failure to cope.”
  • How they put their mission into action
  • What a veteran learns by participating in their “vets course”
  • What “Carry the Challenge” refers to
  • What “Breaking Silence” is referring to
  • How you can get involved with Vets 360


Quotes from episode

"PTS is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation" Click to tweet

"Veterans: We train them how to kick down doors but not how to get ready for civilian life" Click to tweet

"Combat trauma is a natural extension of combat, not a personal failure to cope" Click to tweet

"To stigmatize veterans as being less than valued for going through combat experience is not acceptable" Click to tweet

~ Rick Collins (

Resources / Contact

Websites |

Twitter @Vets360


Veterans 360TM
1049 Camino Del Mar, Unit F.
Del Mar, CA. 92014 USA
Veterans 360TM
3830 Valley Centre Drive #705-401
San Diego, CA 92130
Telephone: Office: 858.256.4006


Next episodes

10/27: Daniel Berry, Mark Borg, Jr., and Grant Brenner - The authors of the #1 Psychology New Release on Amazon: "Irrelationship: How we us Dysfunctional Relationships to Hide from Intimacy

11/3: Retired Fire Chief and Iron Man athlete, Matt Shobert - He's joining us to tell us about a freak accident that changed his life and career - A very intense story of survival and resiliency

11/10: Jeff Dill - Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance - tailored education for firefighters and mental health providers assisting them

11/17: Dr. Barton Goldsmith - Helping us all be less shy, more confident and self-assured

Bonnie Bergin – podcast audio transcript

This is the audio transcript of Coaching Through Chaos Podcast episode 11
featuring Dr. Colleen Mullen and Dr. Bonnie Bergin

0:00 introduction

2:18 Mullen: i had such fun interviewing today's guest. Dr Bonnie Bergin tells us the story of the birth of her life passion - training dogs to help people specifically our veterans, with physical or emotional struggles. shes the originator of the service dog. shes even developed a canine training academy, where a person can  earn a bachelors or even a masters of science degree in canine studies. I'm talking with Dr Bergin today  because of the non profit PAWS FOR PURPLE HEARTS program that she developed.  Paws for Purple Hearts has locations in both northern California and Virginia, and they have expansion plans. The mission of Paws for Purple Hearts is to connect veterans dealing with either physical or emotional difficulties that have developed out of their service to our country  with a service dog to help them live a better quality of life.
Let's listen as bonnie takes us from the birth of this idea all the way through to their plans for the future.

3:13 Mullen: Bonnie, in doing a little research for the interview, i found that you have an interesting claim to fame. you're actually the inventor of the concept of the service dog. can you tell us about your background and how you came to develop this

3:25 Bergin: yes, i want to start out by saying that i knew next to nothing about dog training.
it always seems amusing i think that people expect me to be this amazing dog trainer when i actually came up with the idea. My husband and I had a pet dog, and we took him everywhere and his name was  Socrates  so we were very much involved with dogs  we just didn't know anything about formal training.
so we went over to Australia and taught there for a year and then we went through several of the Asian countries - we flew into Kathmandu and went down through India and Pakistan, Afghanistan and through Iran and into turkey. We went to London, applied for a job and went back and taught in turkey for a year - so we had  quite a bit of experience in those countries and saw a lot of individuals with disabilities. But I didn't have any idea of the effect it was having on me, or the end result it would have as a result of having seen all of that.
4:23 i think two of my most memorable moments were watching someone using a donkey to balance on as they unloaded the pots and pans and sat on the street corner and sold them - so even though they were disabled - they were basically a part of the economic community in that country. Whereas in the United states we were institutionalizing a lot of individuals with physical disabilities. So i hadn't seen that in this country.
4:53 the other thing which was really astounding was , i was in a rooftop restaurant in turkey, right on the main drag in Ankara, and i saw a man literally laying flat on the ground on the sidewalk, but using his elbows to propel himself down the sidewalk. Later on i recognized that he was a quadriplegic but at the time i had no idea. And then he went across a 6 lane freeway - I'm sitting there in this rooftop restaurant watching this and just astounded and then he went all the way across - no car ran over him - and he dragged his body up the sidewalk and out of view. I was looking around and no-one in the restaurant besides myself was looking. It was such a common phenomenon in that country to watch people with disabilities out and about, making their way.
5:50  and so when i came back to this country, i had again, not really realized what i had seen in terms of its effect on me, but i went into a masters program because we had just passed the law that would mainstream people with disabilities into regular classrooms. And again i was a teacher and so i went into a masters program in special ed and early childhood education in order to prepare myself for this change in the educational classroom structure.
I just sat there and listened to the other people who knew a lot about people with disabilities and how to work with them. They were coming up with what they thought were great ideas of stainless steel on the walls to make the institution have less viral or bacterial problems. And to cook nutritious meals and all of that sounded - well the nutritious meals sounded sensible, the stainless steel was just horrifying to hear. Because of course  i was watching and living with and being part of communities in Asia where they had dirt. I mean the roads were dirt and the people with disabilities were involved in non clean environments, bu they were involved. They were out and about.

7:00  Mullen: right to see that they still wanted to sterilize their environment and feed them healthy, you wanted to see them be able to participate in the world

7:08 Bergin: exactly, that is well said. So, I was very shy, I didn't say anything ad then finally the instructor said "Well, does anyone have any other ideas"
and i thought i should mention what I saw in Asia, that they were not institutionalized and I raised my hand and started to say that, and basically I only got to say four words:
"In Asia, I saw ..."  and two of the students just yelled at me.
I was stunned because I had finally got the nerve to say something
and  they said: "don't you even mention Asia, in Asia they let their people with disabilities die. You shouldn't even bring it up"
I was shocked and sat back and got very quiet again, and thought about what could be done,
and what could be done To bring people with disabilities out of an environment where people like that -- they both worked in institutions -- weren't directing and telling and controlling the environment.   But rather where people had a chance to make up their own mind and do things for themselves.
8:09  I don't know why - I cant tell you why - I don't think that in situations like this people really know, but i just thought "DOGS!"  ... and again, without knowing how to train, without having any experience other than a pet dog ... "Dogs could do it. Dogs could help these people!".   I know i was correlating dogs to donkeys and burros because i actually had the thought that in our country they would never let someone with disability go down the street  leaning on a donkey.  But it was just one of those things and that was it for me, and then the rest of my life.

8:45 Mullen: and then what did you do, once you came up with dogs helping people? How did you --  I just wrote a letter last week for someone to have a therapy dog with them - so service dogs are now something that is part of our daily language  - we talk about them in regards to all sorts of helping of people -- so how did you develop this idea to make it what it is today.

9:10 Bergin: well it certainly wasn't easy because not only did i not know anything about training but i immediately went out to find people who trained dogs - I went to Guide Dogs which isn't far from here - and everyone told me that it couldn't be done.
"Don't do it, don't try to do it, its not good for the dog, its not good for the person with the disability, there's just no way it will work ..."
And of course, i was totally ignorant so i thought it would work.
Sometimes I guess that's what makes changes in society -  is you're so dumb .... (laughter)

9:41 Mullen: ... you just don't know better..

9:44 Bergin: exactly.. and i have to say this, the reason that they felt it wouldn't work was viable at that time in society, and at that particular point in time, peoples perspective of the dog. Now looking back i can see why they felt that way. Then of course i just thought "Nah, it CAN be done, I've just got to figure out how to do it".
Well, I was a teacher so i obviously didn't hit kids or use any aversive methods to make the kids in the classroom excited about the subject matter, I used very positive methods to encourage students to get involved in the material. At that time, though, dogs were being trained with choke chain jerks and a lot of aversive methods, and that's how dogs were controlled by trainers.

10:35 Mullen: so when people were saying that it shouldn't be done, its not good for the animals, it was because putting animals through that kind of training would be inhumane at that point (?)

10:43 Bergin: no, actually, I'm going to disagree with that, i think it was that they felt that the person with the disability would not have the physical ability to apply a choke-chain-jerk, or to use those aversive methods that control dogs - because they were physically disabled - how could they do it ?

11:03 Mullen: so thinking that was the to train the dogs, they just didn't think a disabled person would be able to train them

11:09 Bergin: ... AND control them

11:12 Mullen: so you started looking at a different way of training the dogs. it sounds like you headed to a more positive reinforcement model

11:17 Bergin: exactly. and that wasn't the common method at that time. I didn't give up - and don't ask me why - because i cant answer that. I went to disabled programs instead, that was my next move, so i called disabled services here in Santa Rosa, California and i asked the receptionist to connect me to someone as i wanted to talk to them about an idea i had.
And she, being a good receptionist, said " well, can you please give me more information?"
I told her what my idea was and what she said to me next was quite amazing, given that it changed the whole world in this arena...and she said " I'll do it ".
I met with her, her name is Kerry Kanous, she was 19 at the time, she was so physically disabled that if her head fell forward she didn't have the neck muscles to be able to lift her head back up on her shoulders - someone had to actually come along and pick her head back up. She used a power wheelchair, she couldn't lift anything over an ounce in either hand, she was extremely physically disabled. She obviously couldn't walk and had to be lifted in bed at night, she couldn't caretake herself at all.
12:32 None of this did I know anything about, I might add. But when i met her she was just a dynamo - an amazing woman. And we just started. I by chance had a litter of puppies at my home, ironically it was a lab-golden cross, so we started working with one of those puppies. I showed her what to do, I used teaching methods i was using teaching kids, I didn't use the methods that one would use to train a dog - I didn't know any better in other words -
and the dog came along beautifully and started to do the things that she needed.
She had asked me things like: 
13:08 when I'm sitting home alone, or I'm sitting at home and my attendant wants to go out and get groceries and its dark when she comes back, I've been sitting here in the dark because i can't turn the light on:  Can the dog be trained to turn the light on ?
And in my ignorance, I said "sure". And so we did it.
13:28 And she said: if i drop the remote for the TV, I have to call the attendant to come in and get it for me, and it's embarrassing. I don't want to have to keep asking people to do things for me. Is there a way the dog can pick it up, and give it back to me ?
And I said "sure". And so we trained the dog to do that.
13:49 Another thing she asked for - tugging open the refrigerator door to get her lunch out - she had a little table in front of her body on the power wheelchair so the dog could open the door, take out a paper bag with lunch in it, put it on that table and she had enough strength to open the paper bag and unwrap her sandwich and be able to eat - and that way, again, she didn't have to have somebody with her 24/7 and that was a big deal.
" I don't want someone with me 24/7, I want to have some independence, I want to have some opportunities to be by myself, and do things for myself"

14:26 Mullen: right, that's a huge deal

14:28 Bergin: ironically, all those things she was asking for, those are the same commands that people training service dogs all around the world now use

14:33 Mullen: that is just wonderful.  And then you developed - why i have you here today - PAWS FOR PURPLE HEARTS - and now you're using those service dogs to help our veterans. Can you tell us about Paws for Purple Hearts ?

14:51 Bergin: I created what's called 'the university' , we are actually accredited by the US department of education to teach associate, bachelors and master degrees. In that process, one of the programs we developed was sending trainers out -i did it myself for the first nine years - we would take the dogs out to the juvenile hall and have kids there train the dogs for service dogs. And it was just remarkable, it changed these kids. There were gang-bangers, two different major gangs and the kids would come in and work together training their individual dog.
In fact one of them wrote this little note on the door :" Leave your anger at the door "
because these kids just got so sold on the working with dogs. Well, when i stopped being that primary teacher and was  able to hire someone to do it, that individual correlated the idea of doing that with teaching returning veterans who had PTSD to train the dogs - thinking that would also give them that same therapeutic benefit.
15:52 And the whole staff got behind it and all worked really hard to bring Paws for Purple Hearts into fruition.  It's been going on now since 2006. The veterans are getting amazing therapy from the dogs.

16:06 Mullen: its an amazing concept and such good work that you're all doing and providing for the veterans. can you tell us what are the therapeutic benefits for your clients who utilize the service dogs.

16:15 Bergin: well, i can tell  you about Steve for example, he had returned from the war, he had befriended a couple of kids and then he went out on a tour of duty and came back, and at some point in this process saw those two kids being hung from a tree - because the kids had befriended the Americans. So when he was released from duty and he came home to his wife and one child, when the wife had a second child, all of that vision came back and just hit him. As you can imagine, the context, and so he started drinking and getting into trouble, he and his wife divorced, he spent some time in jail, his life just went  down the tubes. Not uncommon, i might add, for veterans with PTSD.

17:01  Mullen: right.

17:01 Bergin: and so when he got involved in the dog program, it was like the beginning of recovery. he started to warm up to the dogs - you cant not warm up to dogs (laughter). and he started to get back into life - because the isolation and the emotional numbness is what had hit him so very badly - working with the dogs and getting in touch with the dogs started to turn that around, to the point that it made such a huge difference. And he talks about it a lot, because it took him off illicit drugs, it took him off prescription drugs, it caused his whole life to turn around, it caused him to start to feel positive about things.
17:45 PPH - Paws for Purple Hearts - its a therapeutic program - we take the dogs in and the veterans with PTSD, the hospitalized veterans train the dogs as part of their therapy.But the dogs that get trained, that are successful, are placed only with veterans. So this whole feeling of being back in this buddy-buddy situation that war strengthens so strongly in terms  of the  military came back again. Because now they were training the dogs for a fellow veteran, and the sense of isolation, obviously, the dogs just don't let you go there.
18:18  The depression started to lift for him, but the sense of purpose - he speaks about that a lot, his sense of purpose came back.  His sleeping pattern improved, and this happens with almost everyone that's involved in this., they constantly say "when i start working with the dog" .
And we do this, as their training skills improve sufficiently, the hospitals actually let them take the dogs back to their room to sleep with them at night. The hospitals usually send a nurse in on a regular basis to check to see if these people are sleeping - because lack of sleep is  a huge issue with PTSD.  And what they find is that they go in their rooms, and every half hour that they walk in, the veteran is awake, all through  the night.
And then what they find when the veteran takes the dog with them - and the dog often sleeps in their bed with them - the nurses walk in and the veteran is asleep. The veterans frequently say "Well, the dog's got my back, and now I can sleep"

19:23 Mullen: they can rest more peacefully...

19:25 Bergin. yes.  And pain - decreased need for pain medication, legal or illegal, decreases significantly.
Service dogs have to be trained to go out in public. So they have to take the dog out in public, and when they do take the dog out in public, one of the biggest issues is they're not comfortable with people coming up to them. But there is a different sense of comfort when the4yve got a dog with them because people come up to talk about the dog.  They walk up and ask about the dog - and that veteran with PTSD is more willing and eager to talk about the dog. Because they have come to love the dog, they're very proud of the training they've been doing with the dog, they want to talk about the dog. It allows that person now to start to make contact with the public, something that they were not willing to do prior to that.  Some of these vets, even from Vietnam, are still living in a house refusing to go out the door, because of this horror they've experienced and this feeling of isolation.
20:33 We have kids come up to us, whose dad or mom have been through the program and they say "thank you for giving me my dad back, or my mom back" .
Women come in to us, wives who say " thank you for giving me my husband back"
Of course its not us that did it, it's the dog - and their relationship with the dog that did it.
The results are just outstanding.
This is not just our opinion, it's the clinical staff who come to us and tell us what they've seen and experienced, it's very real.

21:12 Mullen: it sounds like you have lots of real time hospital data from all of this, and the experiences that you've been through with all the clients.

21:21 interlude - - -

 22:03 Bergin: we had a gentleman who was not in our program, but who was being counseled and had very severe PTSD,  one day he just left his counselor and went running into the dog program office. He knew about it so he just went running in there and he crawled into the crate with a dog, because he was so in need of some way of taking away the pain that he was feeling. And then after that, he went in a few more times and got better. He started healing. Then he applied for a dog, he applied to get one as his service dog, and of course we're always happy to do that. By chance it was the same dog that was in the crate that he crawled into.
Now we didn't do that intentionally because we match dogs and people, but it just happened. When he came out to get the dog, he was still pretty severe, he was able to function, don't get me wrong, but he would come into the classroom and sit up against the wall - which is not again uncommon for someone with PTSD - the paranoia, back to the wall looking out to make sure nobody was behind him, and stuff like that.  So he gets this dog, and when this dog had come back to get readied to be placed, the dog had received some scent detection training - this is not uncommon because we want the dogs to have a variety of experiences and keep them enthused about their learning, you know having a lot of different activities to be involved in.
When the dog was placed with this individual, the individual had been put by the military into a national park, because he really wasn't social, he was still suffering from the effects of PTSD.
He was doing his job at the park and a couple got lost in the park, and everyone was out looking for the couple, they were really worried, they felt it was a dangerous situation. And they  couldn't find the couple so there was a really heightened concern for the lives of this couple. 
Going back to this gentleman, this veteran, his dog indicated something to him - and dogs and humans their relationship and their communication is awesome, just amazing when you really allow yourself to communicate back and forth with a dog - so he knew the dog was trying to tell him something. The dog took off and he followed it, and because the dog had this scent training, the dog found the couple! Can you imagine the joy that this veteran felt, and the pride in his dog, and the sense of purpose that came out of that exposure and experience,  that would again help the PTSD heal that much more.
I think it's just a beautiful story.

25:16 Mullen: it is indeed beautiful.. For Paws for Purple Hearts, can you tell me about who qualifies -is it any veteran or is only veterans with PTSD, how do you select who qualifies for the service dogs.

25:32 Bergin: Any veteran with mobility disabilities, amputation, etc or PTSD or any other form of combat related injury, qualify.  The real limitation is can they take care of the dog.
And so we do have in the application process, they do have to have part of the form filled out  by their medical doctor giving us the go ahead with this placement. So we don't put up the walls of this person does or does not qualify, but  we get the information from  the medical staff and people that they're involved with.

26:07 So basically anyone qualifies that we can feel confident will keep that dog safe and well fed. By that i don't mean "well fed" because that's the number one problem with the service dog, is obesity - because people tend to overfeed.   Well, its the number one problem with people with any pet dog, so ...

26:25 Mullen: its not just that population, right...  well, they love them so much and they want to feed them every time they want a little treat I suppose ....
You mentioned the university, that you have now with bachelors and masters program in training the service dogs, can you talk a little bit about the training. How long is the training of a service dog, what goes into it, and what is the cost of that ?

27:04 Bergin: We do not charge veterans for service dogs. Period.
So there's no fee, if they do come out there are different organizations that will pay for their flight out to get the dog if they don't live near a center, and will help house them.
We're very cutting edge, the newest information and research about how to train dogs, or how they think, or what their cognitive capabilities are, obviously is a big part of what we continue to work on, on a regular basis. But what we do do, and what we know is important, ironically comes from a study done by the military on a bio-sensor method. So what we start with, as soon as the puppies are whelped, we have them touched all over their body, so that not one single neuron in their brain sloughs off and dies, because it has been stimulated. So the veterans in the program actually do that - as soon as the puppies are whelped they start patting the puppies, and touching the puppies and making sure that the puppies are being stimulated physically.
28:11 And then when the puppies reach three and a half to four weeks,, depending on how they are developing, as soon as they start to get up on their legs and walk over to another puppy and engage it in a little play - then we know that they have reached that consciousness stage. They're not just still unconsciously trying to get food or sleep or warmth or whatever, but they are now conscious of each other.  And so we start training them, right then.
It's akin to early childhood education, only i would call it early puppy-hood education.
28:48 We actually start training them to sit, to down, to turn. Within the first four or five days they have 12 commands under their belts, and by that I'm talking about putting a treat in front of their nose and getting them to do it, but they're still doing the behavior. And then we stop putting the treat in front of their nose and show them that we have the treat, but we give them the command. Say we trained them at 4 weeks, at 5 weeks they will actually sit on command, literally.
29:19 And its so funny to watch them because you say the word SIT, and they look at you in your face, and then they look over at the treat that you've got in your hand and they look back at you in your face and then they put their butt on the ground.

29:31 Mullen: (laughing) ... they want to make sure ...

29:33 Bergin: they're very clear... Again, there is research that backs all this, so by the time they are 6 weeks they're retrieving, by the time they're 7 weeks they're tugging open little doors. By 7 weeks some of them are even turning on light switches. We have these teeny little light switches that they can actually go up to and turn on. They're very bright, and we want to make sure that the correct behaviors are embedded, so that these are the behaviors they will do when they are older.
30:06 And we only train them for 5 - 10 minutes a day, so we're not over training them. The rest of the time they're playing, and with their siblings and having a good time. But for that period of time, they do have to learn that when they're told to do something they have to obey.
We don't let them get into little fights with each other, we have a playground manager to stop the spats, so they don't learn to do that.
30:29  We use generally golden retrievers and labs, because first of all they're the best retrievers, and secondly because they are so well attuned to trying to please people. We don't use field trial stock or hunting stock, because we don't want predatory instincts - you know we don't want the dog to have a strong drive to chase a cat across a street or something like that. 
30:54 We found with our veterans with PTSD we have to be exceedingly cautious, and almost any veteran who has any kind of physical injury has some PTSD as well, but certainly some of them have no physical injury and are still stymied by some very significant PTSD.

31:14 Mullen: absolutely, when you say just the sleep, or going out in public, going grocery shopping for someone with severe combat based PTSD - being in public like that can be a monumental task. Very often i would think, you're providing service dogs to veterans that don't have some physical limitation, it's really the emotional stuff that comes with the PTSD.

31:35 Bergin: exactly... and they get challenged when they walk into a store, even when the dog has the little vest on that says they're a service dog, they still get challenged, which of course is the last thing we want to be happening, because were trying to invite these individuals - who have fought for our country and our lives - back into society and we don't want to make it more and more difficult for them.
But the truth is when they take their dog in, when they're working with their dog, what we have found is that the dog has to be very gentle, very sweet, non challenging. You would think that a strapping 200 pound guy with PTSD could handle a dog that's going to try to chase a cat - but what happens is, if they have a severe situation with PTSD, what you've got is them having to argue with this dog, or deal with a dog that is challenging them and it takes them emotionally back to the war.
So we have to make sure that we give them dogs that do not put them in that mindset.
And those dogs are generally very soft and sweet goldens and labs - and as I said, not all of them are like that so we have to be very careful in selecting and breeding for a very gentle dog. Ironically, that's the same dog that we would place with a quadriplegic who couldn't physically do anything for themselves but who needs the dog to turn light switches on and pick up things they drop and stuff like with Kerry originally.
33:05 So it needs to be a dog that's very willing to; and wanting to; work for that person and not have a bone of challenge in their body. Which of course is impossible but we decrease it as much as possible. And this is all with non aversive training methods, everything is positive, everything is encouraging, everything is building a desire to want to, and have a drive to work with and help people.
Its pretty exciting to see,  some dogs have a drive to do search and rescue because they have a really strong mental drive to do something. A service dog, if there's any drive at all, its just because they want to please the person. They want to be with that person and help that person.

33:49 Mullen: right, that's what you mentioned, so the retrieving and the pleasing. Wow, you guys are doing an amazing service to people and providing all that wonderful training. Lets talk about how Paws for Purple Hearts survives. You're a non-profit, so does that mean that you survive solely on the goodness of others and fundraising ?  Where does your funding come from ?

34:14 Bergin: that's where it comes from ... there's a lot of people who are really committed to our veterans that are really doing what they can to help, there are some foundations that have been generous enough to make some gifts to us. We do direct mail and certainly anybody that's interested in helping, if they send us their email address or their street address , we would be sending them the newsletter that comes out, but we would also be asking for a gift, and that's always hard to acknowledge. But we have to do that in order to get the funds to do the work we're doing, and certainly I believe the work were doing is absolutely critical.  The changes that i have seen are such that i certainly couldn't give it up.

34:56 Mullen: You're doing wonderful work that is so needed and so well received. I know you have a new supporter in myself and my husband after today... Does Paws for Purple Hearts have anything in development, and I think we missed talking about where you are located, I know you are in the Northern California location, can you talk about where else you are located and where you see Paws for Purple Hearts expanding to ?

35:32 Bergin: we're looking at, and we've had a lot of people come to us from VAs and also Department of Defense sites. We try to locate near, or on the grounds of hospitals, so that were able to be incorporated into the actual physical therapy programs with the veterans, which is something that we've been encouraged to do, and its been working really well.  Right now we've just opened in Virginia, and that site is working quite well I might add. We go down to Poplar Springs which is not a military hospital, but a lot of the military send their veterans with PTSD down there for treatment.  So we've been working there and we're up here in Menlo Park in California, but we're working really hard right now to open a program in San Diego, because of course there's a lot of veterans.
36:29 We want to serve both hospitalized and offsite veterans, and so were trying to open a facility ourselves instead of being on the hospital grounds, because when you're on the hospital grounds offsite veterans cant really come back and be a part of the program. So we're trying to find a location, we're looking at somewhere in the Escondido area possibly, another location that makes traveling to the VA and the DOD hospitals easy to reach.  But still because there's such a huge population of veterans that would be coming in and being able to use the services of the program as well - San Diego is really highest priority right now and were working really hard to make that happen.

37:09  Mullen: that is wonderful to hear, I am based out of San Diego and I imagine you would be so welcome down here  [ ... ]
That's getting us down to our last question for today, so how can people get involved, refer or donate to Paws for Purple Hearts, can you give us the website or the contact information ?

38:01 Bergin: the website is
and we are, by the way, licensed by the military Order of the Purple Heart, which is chartered by the United States Congress, so if anybody wants more trust in who we are and what we do beyond what we're saying, I do want to make that point.
The telephone number for the staff person here in northern California is 707-238-5110.
Usually we ask people to call directly to the National office and then they will get that person in touch with a regional center, if they're close to it.
The kinds of volunteer tasks that were looking for, certainly helping to raise money is always an issue, but when a litter of puppies are born, we do need people to come in and help touch and pat the puppies, because the hospitalized vets don't have that many hours in a day to do that. We certainly are hoping that offsite veterans will come in and do that, but the puppies do need to be touched ... The veterans are the only ones that do the actual training, but certainly the litters of puppies need to be touched.
39:14 When we're getting ready to have a graduation of course, we're asking volunteers to come in and help set up the site and bring cookies and coffee for people who attend the graduation and things like that. There's always tasks for volunteers to do...but money is critical, that's whats helping us move towards San Diego. My goal is to get San Diego open within the next couple of months... we're that close to moving forward.

39:45 Mullen: Well, I cant wait to see you down here then Dr Bonnie Bergin, with Paws for Purple Hearts, I just want to thank you so much. I know you've touched my heart today in listening to your stories about what you are doing, and I'm sure you're going to touch the hearts of many people listening. So thank you so much for your time ...

40:06 exit commentary

42:00 FINIS

Paws for Purple Hearts

Bonnie Bergin

~ creator of the service dog, she shares with us compelling stories of their origin and history, as well as the current initiative Paws for Purple Hearts - in which Veterans train service dogs to assist fellow Veterans in need.  Paws for Purple Hearts  is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization - and you can help by donating or even patting puppies...

- Audio Transcript available -

Podcast available

The Origin of the Service Dog

Bonnie Bergin is the inventor of the current day service dog. Through her world travels working as a teacher in other countries, Bonnie witnessed how other countries treated their physically disabled people differently than here in the U.S. at the time. She saw that the expectation in other countries, especially the Asian countries were that their disabled people were more likely to be actively participating in society whereas, at the time, physically disabled people were often being cared for by others here in the U.S. (either in-home care or hospital care). Bonnie didn’t know how, but she wanted to change that. Somewhere in her travels she witnessed donkeys helping physically disabled people get work done. Bonnie imagined that dogs could help people in similar ways in the U.S. She had no experience in dog training, but she felt in her heart that it would not be unreasonable to think dogs could be trained to help physically disabled people in their day to day tasks. Hence, the birth of what we know today as the “service dog”.

Where they train the dogs

When Bonnie began to train dogs, she set out to do it differently than the norm of the time. She was a teacher and implemented positive reinforcement as she did with her students rather than the standard “aversive” training using choke chains and other methods. Bonnie started with wanting to connect with the local disabled population. She reached out to the office of Disabled Service in Santa Rosa California and found her first client/trainee. Her name is Carrie – she was a quadriplegic with very physically limiting circumstances. Carrie volunteered to let Bonnie train the first dog to help her. (You can hear the full story in the podcast). Bonnie has since developed Bergin University of Canine Studies which offers both a Bachelor’s and Master’s of Science in Canine Studies.

The birth of a new program to help our veterans

Paws for Purple Hearts was founded in 2006. Bonnie set out to develop a program that provides well-trained service dogs to our veterans with either physical or emotional limitations, such as PTSD, that prevent them from being able to function fully in their life. In the case of physical limitations, the dogs function as a helper, they can turn on light switches, pick up the remotes or their phones, and even retrieve their lunch from the fridge. In the case of clients with PTSD, the dogs help the client sleep better, feel capable of leaving their home to venture into the community when they may have previously chosen to be socially isolated, relieve depression symptoms through the camaraderie they feel with their dog. The dogs are trained by hospitalized veterans. Bonnie says that it gives those patients a sense of meaning and purpose again while they are working on living with their physical setbacks.

Therapeutic Benefits of Service Dogs

• Relief of depression
• Improved sleep
• Decreased social isolation
• Increased capacity for a full range of emotions
• Decrease in drug and alcohol abuse
• A sense of safety in their (the client’s) environment
• Increases re-connection with the client’ community (they leave their home, will interact with people in their community)
• increased patience, impulse control, emotional regulation
• decreased dependence upon pain medications
• greater sociability and a more positive outlook
• a mission-driven focus and renewed sense of purpose
• a decrease in emotional numbness
• decreased startle responses
• improved parenting skills and family dynamics

Who qualifies for a Paws for Purple Hearts service dog?

Any veteran with a physical or emotional disability. The only rule out criteria would be if they were not able to sufficiently care for and feed the dog. This is determined by the potential recipient’s medical doctor (i.e. if they are not physically mobile, they will want to know that the potential client has an attendant that can feed the dog every day). When they speak of emotional disability, we are referring to symptoms associated with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder and any other mental health issue developed out of their military service.

How is Paws for Purple Hearts Funded?

Paws for Purple Hearts (PPH) is a 501(c ) (3) non profit. They survive solely on the generosity of others. The program is absolutely free to the recipient veterans.

Can I get a service dog from PPH if I qualify but don’t live near a center?

Yes. In many cases, funding may be available to fly the recipient to PPH to be paired up with their service dog.

What’s next for Paws for Purple Hearts?

Bonnie has PPH’s sites set on opening a location in San Diego. She reported that she is seeking a location that is not on VA hospital grounds so that it is more accessible to non-hospitalized recipients. There are currently locations in northern California and Virginia. Bonnie hopes the San Diego location can become a reality by the end of 2015. Here at Coaching Through Chaos we hope so too!

How do I get involved with Paws for Purple Hearts?

In addition to donations, Paws for Purple Hearts can always use some extra hands. For as much as the veterans do the training in the hospital, the PPH puppies need to be played with and human-to-puppy touch is a critical part of their development. If you think you’d love to pet a puppy for a while and help out our vets at the same time, please reach out. You can find PPH at Of course, they will welcome any financial donation you can make. When you are on their website, check out their wish list to help out that way too.


Paws for Purple Hearts 

Bergin University of Canine Studies: If you've ever wanted to study canine behavior, this is the place for cutting edge training.

Read PPH Director Rick Yount's statement for the record in support of
H.R. 198, the Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act and
H.R. 1154, the Veterans Equal Treatment for Service Dogs Act -
as presented to ( the House Committee on Veterans Affairs (

'Paws for Purple Hearts' Helping with with PTSD  -  Alexandra Hemmerly-Brown  ( 08 Feb 2011)

'Through Airmen's eyes: Chief discusses how family, pet help PTSD issues' - Staff Sgt Amanda Dick, Air Force Public Affairs Agency 29 Nov 2012)

Puppies from Paws for Purple Hearts

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Watching out for our Vets : The Eastern Foundry Incubator

Andrew Chang

There are many organizations coming up with new approaches to treating PTSD as we speak.  For this episode, I had the opportunity to interview Andrew Chang, one of 4 managing partners of the Eastern Foundry, a veteran-owned technology and innovation incubator. In their own words:  “Eastern Foundry is a first-of-its-kind marketplace where technologists, government contractors and agencies convene to exchange information and opportunities, find teaming partners and conduct business.”

If you start to follow along with the podcast, you may start to guess that I have very strong feelings about our country being ill-prepared for treating the emotional stress and post trauma emotional upheaval many of our troops face through the duties of their service. I think military PTSD will be the mental health field’s biggest problem for the next 20 years or longer. I know I am not the only one that feels this way.

Podcast available

The Foundry Cup Competition

Providing all of the resources of a modern technology incubator, Eastern Foundry offers physical workspace, services, trainings and information that are tailored to help large and small businesses achieve government contracting success”. I interviewed Andrew to introduce you to the Foundry Cup competition. This competition is designed to identify solutions to serve our veteran communities. The current competition is their inaugural event, setting off what is going to be a bi-annual forum for not only competition, but also for collaboration among innovators in their fields. The current competition brought together 14 innovation teams to pitch their solutions for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The teams present their ideas and technology to a panel of judges much like in the widely- watched Shark Tank television show.

This initial competition was geared towards innovations in PTSD, but each competition will have it’s own theme. I interviewed Andrew about a week before the winner was announced. I could tell how excited he and his team were at the turnout of innovations and that they were going to get to foster at least one of these new technologies to give them a more solid starting ground. The participants were selected prior to the actual 3- day competition. The participants ranged from a team developing smart phone technology helping veterans bypass the VA waiting lists to access clinicians remotely, to a company who focuses on social media postings for detection of PTSD, to previous Coaching Through Chaos Podcast Guest, the Virtual Reality Medical Center and their work helping treat combat trauma with virtual reality technology.

The winners were selected based on the following criteria:

  1. Likelihood that the idea will yield positive outcomes,
  2. How innovative the idea is,
  3. State of development (e.g. is it at the idea, prototype/pilot, roll-out, or expansion phase),
  4. Opportunities for collaboration during the program,
  5. Ability to travel to offices in Crystal City, Virginia to attend workshops and events.

On June 20th the winner and runners’ up were announced.

And the winner is…

Qntfy win first Foundry CupThe D.C.-based startup Qntfy was awarded the first place cash prize of $10,000.
They utilize social media data to detect PTSD,  The developers were driven to help immediate friends and family suffering from PTSD. The Qntfy team have created an algorithm that analyzes individuals’ social media posting frequency and content to look for indicators of their mental health statuses – data that can help clinicians prioritize care. In addition to the cash prize, Qntfy will also receive office space to develop their tech and utilize the resources of the Eastern Foundry, exposure to possibly funding avenues, education and training. You can find out more about Qntfy here.

The runner-up was San Antonia-based mobile IT company, Sound-Off. They received $5,000 as their prize. Sound-Off enables veterans to connect with and receive anonymous ongoing care from volunteer counselors and veterans, all from the touch of their smart phones.

The “People’s Choice” winner was Arlington-based military lifestyle application, Sandboxx, which enables military service members and veterans to connect with family members, friends and military units as well as send snail mail through the app’s Mailboxx feature.

I had the opportunity to correspond with Glen Coppersmith, Ph.D.  He is the founder and CEO of Qntfy (pronounced “quantify”), a small company working to scale clinical impact and empower mental health professionals via technology.  For the Foundry Cup, Glen and his team detailed some of their work that provides quantifiable, or measurable, information about mental health from data not traditionally examined by the medical domain – things like social media, movement and workout data. Their algorithms, based on peer-reviewed research, can extract thousands of bits of information, which on their own each weakly correlated with mental health. However, he points out that when taken together, like a braided rope, these weak signals provide a strong picture of a person’s mental health. This data can help clinicians prioritize care.  They are going to be able to provide such rich data points for clinicians in order to better attend to their clients' needs.  Great Innovation Qntfy!

The prize from the Foundry Cup was $10,000, but Glen said the biggest benefit came from coming together with other incredible, diverse, and passionate teams similarly motivated to make a dent in the treatment of PTSD. The Eastern Foundry also is providing them with free office-space, next to some of their fellow Foundry Cup Finalists. Glen feels the importance of this collaboration forum can't be overstated.  He said the "Eastern Foundry has effectively brought together some people that otherwise wouldn’t have met, and provided material support towards ongoing collaboration, in an area in which they all want to see progress made".

How to Get Involved in the Foundry Cup Competition

If you are interested in participating in the next Foundry Cup Competition, please check out their website They will be announcing the next competition very soon, you’ll want to check it out right away to get the details and deadlines. If you go for it- -Good Luck!

Some information on Veterans and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

(These statistics are taken from several websites – all are featured in the resource section of this article).

1 in 5 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are diagnosed with ptsd.
It is estimated that 30% of Vietnam vets have PTSD (all these years later, this is considered “chronic” in nature.
More than 40 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans responding to a recent survey said they did not seek mental health care because of a perceived negative impact on their careers. (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Member Survey 2012).
Health Care for Veterans with PTSD costs s 3.5 times more than for one without ptsd. (( - 22 service members per day are committing suicide.
In the general population, it is estimated that 7 or 8 people out of 100 develop ptsd at some point in their life. In contrast, when looking at our current troops serving in Operation enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqui Freedom, it is estimated that they will develop PTSD at a rate of 11-20 out of 100.
For troops suffering from combat trauma, 2 out of 3 of their marriages are failing. That’s over 200,000 military divorces.
1/3 of our nation’s homeless are veterans. This needs to change! We have a responsibility to them! They served for us and we, as a nation, need to be prepared to help them.

Where Does This Leave Us?

In a country with 21.8 million veterans and 1.3 million active service members we need to understand how they are doing and what they are exposed to.  We also need to be mindful of how the anxiety from the anticipation of what they could be exposed to impacts them. I am hoping through continuing to expose the need for services in this arena and highlighting concerning facts about Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, we can get others to take notice and do something to help get our mental health professionals up to speed on, or involved in innovation and research in the arena of treatment modalities for this terrible epidemic that has been plaguing our nation’s veterans for decades. In the meantime, I’ll keep doing the work I do and will continue to highlight resources in this area of need.


Disclaimer: The content of this article is intended for informational and educational purposes only. It is not meant to be, nor does it constitute mental health advice. If you are experiencing symptoms or situations contained in this article, please seek out a consult from a licensed mental health provider in your community who specializes in treating Post traumatic Stress Disorder.

Read the companion article  'Watching out for our Vets' at the

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