February 13, 2023
Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters, please call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or visit the hotline’s website. [988lifeline.org]
Kaya, a service dog who served as a beloved ambassador for PTSD treatment and veterans’ health, has died, according to her owner.
The 8-year-old German shepherd was euthanized on February 4 after being diagnosed with cancer, her handler, Cole Lyle, told CNN in an interview.
Kaya stood alongside Lyle as he advocated before Congress for better access to service dogs for veterans.
Lyle joined the Marine Corps after graduating high school and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. He told CNN that he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder shortly after returning from deployment. But the treatment methods he was prescribed didn’t work for him. And a divorce and joblessness exacerbated his mental health challenges.
“I was really at a very low point in my life and almost became a veteran suicide statistic,” he said.
But inspired by a friend who had a service dog, he sought out one of his own and adopted Kaya in Dallas, Texas.
Lyle explained that Kaya was specifically trained to help with his PTSD symptoms, such as waking him up from nightmares or licking his face when he was having an anxiety attack. The interventions “help you calm down and kind of breaks the snowball effect of that anger, depression, sadness, whatever it is,” he said.
At the time, he said, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs didn’t provide funding for PTSD service dogs – so he spent $10,000 of his own money adopting and training Kaya. He explained that although there are non-profits that provide veterans with service dogs, many of them have wait times of over a year.
Walking around his own community, Kaya was a conversation starter. Lyle explained to curious neighbors why he had a service dog and why dogs can be so beneficial for veterans’ mental health.
Eventually, these conversations led him to draft and advocate before Congress for the PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act, which was signed into law in 2021. The law requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to implement a five-year pilot program to provide training for service dogs for veterans with PTSD.
Lyle said that in addition to performing specialized tasks, service dogs also act as “an extraordinarily powerful backstop to veteran suicide.” Caring for the dog can help “provide a sense of purpose.”
“It’s a very powerful backstop when somebody’s feeling that lonely or depressed,” he said.
An emotional final flight home
A poignant video of Kaya’s last flight to Dallas went viral this week after Lyle posted it to his own social media.
He explained to CNN that she was diagnosed with cancer over Christmas and he made the decision to take her to Texas one last time, where she was born and where they spent years while he studied at Texas A&M University. A friend working at Southwest Airlines helped coordinate the flight, getting Kaya safely and comfortably onto the plane in a cart. Once on board, the staff made an announcement over the intercom explaining Kaya’s story and encouraging passengers to “show her some love” on her last flight.
When Lyle and Kaya disembarked the flight, “hundreds of people were cheering and clapping for her and telling her ‘welcome home’ and ‘thank you for your service,’” Lyle said. “It was really an extraordinary moment.”
He said that he had “no idea it was gonna go as viral as it did.”
“But I’m glad it did, because Kaya’s life and legacy deserve to be shared and honored.”
Lyle described Kaya as “a consummate professional” when she was working. But when her working vest came off, “she was a little diva” who loved to play, he said.
“What made her so extraordinary is that even before she was trained, she was very smart,” he said. “She was just such an intuitive dog.”
Lyle said that he hopes even after her death, Kaya’s legacy can continue to fuel efforts to connect veterans with service dogs. “Service dogs can save lives,” he said.
“I can’t tell you how many veterans have messaged me and reached out to me in years past and even now and said, ‘you know, Kaya inspired me to get my own dog, because I saw you talk about how powerful she was for you, and if I had not done that, I would have killed myself.’ And I think that is Kaya’s most profound and powerful legacy.”
- How Service Dogs Safeguard, Deepen Relationships and Save Us from Ourselves
- Service Animal Resource Hub