Cold noses, warm hearts, helping paws: Canine Companions for Independence has it all

Julia LeDoux
August 09, 2019 - 4:23 pm
Thach and Liz

Canine Companions for Independence

When Army Capt. James Van Thach returned home from Iraq in late 2008, he was in constant physical pain due to the injuries he suffered on the battlefield.

His marriage was also ending and Thach couldn’t find a job that put his law degree to good use. At 33 years old, he moved back into his parents’ home so they could help him manage all the medications he was taking.

Things changed for Thach in 2012 when a four-legged angel named Liz, a  Canine Companions for Independence service dog, came into his life and stopped him from feeling like he was lost at SEA – his abbreviation for feeling shy, embarrassed or ashamed.

 “She gave me my independence back,” he said.

Tthach and Liz

Thach said Liz picks up items he’s dropped, opens and closes doors, turn lights on and off, and helps him access any room in his Queens, New York home. 

Now a suicide prevention specialist who helps other veterans, Thach travels the country with Liz, sharing their story of hope and healing.

“She allows me to help other veterans,” he said. “I encourage them to get a service dog if they really need one.”

CCI has trained and matched service dogs with children and adults for more than four decades. Thach’s success story doesn't surprise the organization’s program manager Jessica Reiss.  She said service dogs become the best friends and constant companions of veterans living with PTS and service-related injuries.

“They really do help give the veteran their life back again by providing them with confidence,” she said.

Thach was involved in two separate explosions when he served in Iraq from 2006 to 2008. A bomb exploded under his Humvee in 2006, leaving Thach with a mild traumatic brain injury. He opted to stay in Iraq. Then in 2007, a rocket exploded near Thach, catapulting him into the air.

“I was in the hospital and I saw my brothers and sisters who were missing arms and legs,” he said. “I had all my body parts.”

Even though his internal injuries were severe, he once again declined the plane ride home. Thach asked if there was some way he could stay in Iraq, and there was: desk duty and that’s what he did until returning home in 2008.

Thach suffers from mobility problems in both his back and neck; deals with short-term memory loss; migraine headaches; nerve damage in his left leg and loss of vision in his left eye – all things Liz helps him overcome and manage.

“She’s helped me on an emotional level,” Thach added. “She has a caring demeanor.”

Thach and Liz
Canine Companions for Independence

Reiss said the human-canine partnership is based on inclusion and acceptance. CCI's service dogs for veterans program began in response to the increase in the number of military veterans with PTS and service-related injuries.

Eligible participants must currently live within a 200-mile radius of the organization’s regional training centers in Santa Rosa, Calif., Medford, NY or Irving, Tex.

Reiss said the dogs are trained to handle a number of tasks, including anxiety and nightmare interruption; turning on lights; retrieving objects and supporting their veteran in public situations that might provoke anxiety.

The non-profit was formed in 1975 and was the first assistance dog organization to be accredited by Assistance Dogs International, said Reiss.

“We’ve provided assistance dogs to over 6,000 people with disabilities,” she said.

The process to receive a Canine Companions assistance dog involves multiple steps and can take one to two years to complete. It all begins with filling out an online form at Once the application has been received, a telephone interview is conducted. Medical ad professional references follow. After a personal interview, a selection decision is made. Once a veteran has been selected to participate in the program, he or she is invited to a CCI facility for a two-week training session. After receiving a dog, participants are also asked to stay in touch with the organization and provide periodic updates on how the dog is doing.

Thach said he couldn’t imagine his life without Liz in it.

“She gave me my life back,” he said.

VA doesn’t pay for service dogs for veterans with PTSD. This bill would change that.

Semper K9 helps veterans and dogs help each other

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