Photo by Rebecca Johnson
Gordon, a shelter pet hoping to be adopted, is never far from his favorite tennis ball.

A puppy can bring a smile to just about anyone’s face.

But the companionship of a pet can mean much more to military veterans dealing with emotional and physical trauma.

Candace Klein, president of the Rotary Club of Buckhead, said the service organization is teaming up with the Urban Pet Project and Companions for Heroes to improve the lives of veterans and homeless pets.

When considering a service project, Klein said club members were interested in helping veterans and animals.

“We looked at our own membership and we have such a high population of people who are veterans in our club and wanted to find a way to enhance their lives,” Klein said.

So the Rotary club provided a $20,000 grant for the project, which officially kicked off July 1. Eligible veterans will be able to adopt a pet at no cost, and receive one year of pet health insurance, a gift card for pet supplies and access to a trainer.

Klein and other Rotary members are also volunteering to foster and train shelter pets from Urban Pet Project to help them get ready for adoption. Putting dogs into foster homes creates more space at the shelter for homeless pets, Klein said.

There are about 35 club members involved in the initiative so far.

“People can really be motivated to help veterans, people can be motivated to help dogs. It’s got a really wide appeal that way,” Klein said. “I’m excited about it. We’ve got a lot of motivated people.”

Cathy Roth, fundraising coordinator for the Midtown animal rescue organization Urban Pet Project, is a veteran herself. She said after serving in the Air Force, she understands how much pets can help veterans.

“I was in the Air Force and served for almost five years. Even someone who doesn’t face the type of incidents our guys are facing in Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s such a huge transition getting out of the military,” Roth said. “Having that companionship makes the transition to civilian life so much easier.”

Roth said many veterans are dealing with issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries and spinal injuries, and could really benefit from the love and support an animal can provide.

Lynne Gartenhaus, executive director of Companions for Heroes, said animals often can sense when someone is hurting. “It is amazing how these dogs can pick up on these problems and just kind of instinctively know what to do,” Gartenhaus said. “These dogs are performing magic. It’s pretty wild to see.”

Companions for Heroes was formed in 2009 by David Sharpe, a veteran who suffered from PTSD. Sharpe twice contemplated suicide, but was saved by both times by the comfort of his dog, Cheyenne, Gartenhaus said.

His experience led him to start Companions for Heroes to help veterans connect with animals in need of a home.

“He realized if a dog could help him this way, it could help other people,” Gartenhaus said. “It serves two vulnerable populations. It’s a win-win because the relationship becomes symbiotic.”

Gartenhaus said she has high hopes for the partnership with the Rotary Club of Buckhead and Urban Pet Project.

“We’ve gotten our first three applications and we’re really excited to be rolling,” Gartenhaus said.

Companions for Heroes is based in Washington, D.C., but military veterans from around the country can apply for the program.

Gartenhaus said having partners in Atlanta will help them reach more people and animals in need. The Rotary Club of Buckhead has a goal of helping match 100 dogs and veterans by July 1, 2013, Klein said.

“What Rotary is doing for us is breaking the ice,” Gartenhaus said. “I’m really, really excited. This, to me, is how we would like to move forward in different cities with these partnerships.”