By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
You’re stressed, your thoughts aren’t straight, and you’re tapping your leg anxiously. But suddenly there’s a little furry head sitting on your lap, reminding you to calm down. You start petting that furry little head, and next thing you know, you’re feeling a lot better.
That’s the kind of therapy that comes with the Warrior Canine Connection, which uses service dogs to help wounded service members with physical injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
“It’s a great non-traditional form of therapy that doesn’t come off as therapy at all,” said Allison Proctor, the dog training instructor at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, which treats PTSD and TBI patients.
About a third of the dogs with the Warrior Canine Connection work at hospitals or outpatient facilities like NICoE. The rest stay with their dedicated puppy parent, and their job depends on that person’s role in the community. The dogs at NICoE are still in training and will eventually be placed with wounded warriors, but while they’re there, they give active-duty patients a renewed sense of purpose.
“Knowing that these dogs are going to be placed with veterans who need help, [the patients] will do anything for their brothers and sisters. So, you’ll find that they’ll jump at the chance to work with the dogs,” Proctor said.
“Walking Pharmacies” Calm Nerves, Build Relationship Skills
The patients make sure the dogs aren’t uncomfortable, scared or overexcited, and they get great therapy in return. The dogs are trained to recognize and respond to stress cues — a tapping foot, a head in the hands, pacing.
“There’s a chemical smell that’s associated with all our emotions,” Proctor said. “When you’re in an anxious state and your leg is tapping, [the dogs] come closer and close the gap. They realize that, for some reason, that indicates to give this person extra attention.”
Proctor tapped her own knee in demonstration. Derek, a 2-year-old black lab, came over pretty quickly and put his head in her lap. Pups Bre, Lily and Casey were right on her tail (literally). A petting session then ensued.
“You start petting them, and it’s going to release oxytocin, which is our anti-stress chemistry. So, instead of taking a pill to lower your anxiety, you have this real-life dispensary at your fingertips,” Proctor said, calling the dogs a “walking pharmacy.”
“The only side effects are dog hair and drool.”
The dogs also remind the service members how to relate to other people.
“You’re the one in charge of making this dog comfortable, and … you realize how much of an effort you might have to put into your own relationships at home,” Proctor said.
While people tend to hide their thoughts and emotions, dogs don’t, which helps the service members work on patience, consistency and positive reinforcement. Proctor said the biggest breakthroughs are always routed in self-realization.
“It’s never us shining a light on something. It’s always the client or patient coming to it on their own, which is immensely more valuable than me pointing it out and saying, ‘Oh, look at how well you’ve done,'” she said. “They can see how well they’ve done.”
One NICoE patient was really focused on making sure his pup-in-training, Lundy, went to a service member who really needed it. But the patient built such a strong bond with Lundy that, when it was time to place the dog, the trainers realized they couldn’t put it with anyone else.
“This dog has had such a great impact on this guy’s healing that, for him to go to someone else, that bond probably won’t be as strong,” Proctor said.
But, like many service members, it took him a lot of convincing because he was set on his mission — giving the dog to someone else.
“It was us as an organization that said, ‘Maybe you should take Lundy.’ And that gave him permission to say, ‘This is what I actually wanted,'” Proctor said. “There was just a giant smile on his face, because he would have never asked for him.”
Proctor said the dogs have all been named after service members who were wounded or killed in the line of duty.
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