You don’t have to have a service dog to enjoy the benefits of having a dog (in fact having a service dog if you don’t need one is damaging to the service dog industry). Simply owning a dog and taking care of it can be an incredible form of companionship, fulfilling responsibility, and ultimately a sense of profound catharsis.

First of all, owning a dog is a larger responsibility than the majority of Americans realize. A staggering amount of dogs suffer from anxiety of all sorts, and their owners don’t even know it, or they play it off as “cute excitedness” of some kind. Dogs think and act very differently than humans, and we often wrongly ascribe human characteristics to them which can be both inaccurate and damaging. Before getting a dog, the prospective owner should understand their responsibility over another life and research accordingly. The owner also simply has to be in a place in their lives when they can realistically take good care of a dog — something that takes a lot of time and attention to do properly.

With that said, veterans like myself have found great joy in having a dog. They love you unconditionally and for many veterans, the fact that they are not human and that they can’t talk is partly what makes them so lovable. Despite what I said above, they do have some basic human qualities — the good ones — and lack all the complexities that can make people so difficult (that’s not to say that dogs are perfect, but you get the idea).

They also take a fair amount of work. Unlike a cat, you have to let them out to go to the bathroom several times a day, and if you live in an apartment, that means going on a quick walk. They require constant exercise — if you’re thinking of getting a military-type working dog breed, you’d better be taking that thing out and running it every single day. They are constantly pining for your love and attention, and of course they want to play just about any time they’re not sleeping.

This responsibility factor can be one of the most rewarding parts of having a dog. Anything worth having is hard work, and the bond developed by taking care of a dog day after day is what really pays off. I wind up going outside much more often, just to let my dog out. I return his love and affection even when I don’t necessarily feel like it, with some scratches, running around my apartment (to my neighbor’s dismay), or some wrestling. It connects you to something innocent and returns you to a simpler, clearer state of mind.

This Jan. 1, 2012 photo shows center co-founder, Mathew Sinmans, with two of 29 rescued wolf dogs at The Lockwood Animal Rescue Center in Lockwood, Calif. It’s been three months since this California animal rescue center retrieved 29 wolf-dogs from an Alaska tourist attraction that had fought the state over owning, breeding and selling the wolf-hybrids. Chains were so deeply embedded in the necks of two of the animals that they had to be surgically removed.The task of taming the wolf-dogs has been given to a couple of U.S. military veterans who say they can relate to the stress of trying to transition to a normal life. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Instead of providing service dogs to wounded veterans, a study in 2008 called “Dog Tags” placed dogs that “come from traumatic situations and may be physically injured or emotionally scarred” with wounded veterans. The wounded veterans, willing participants recovering in the Walter Reed National Military Center for their recovery, would take care of the shelter dog. The findings were as follows:

Since 2008, Dog Tags has trained over 40 Soldiers and helped approximately 75 dogs into new homes. As of this writing, at least 2 Soldiers are in the process of establishing a dog training business, and many others have returned to school furthering their education to become veterinary technicians or enter some other aspect of the animal services industry.

Additionally, Soldiers have reported other benefits that extend beyond the scope of what Dog Tags was designed to provide. The WHS and its staff have become a home away from home and an extended family, where Soldiers can visit and help. Volunteering at the shelter has helped Soldiers reestablish work routines and solid work habits, helping them to become more outgoing and social than before entering the program, in turn lowering stress and increasing happiness.