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A pet project: Dogs help troops ease into therapy

Healing with Elsie

Elsie, an Appenzeller puppy, hangs out with Warrior Transition Unit soldiers on Kleber Kaserne, Kaiserslautern, Germany. Elsie's owner, Azra Surhio, is a social worker at the WTU and bought Elsie specifically for therapy and is amazed by the results.

This report has been corrected

VILSECK, Germany — In a hallway where the thud of Army boots is the common sound, the padded paws of a small black dog were barely audible.

Cash, a 3-year-old Maltipoo with a red bandana around his neck, was on the job at the Warrior Transition Unit, trotting from door to door and poking his nose into each room. Cash’s role at the WTU is simple, setting people at ease in a building where tensions occasionally run high.

Certified by a new Red Cross program, he’s one of three dogs placed in outpatient settings in the Kaiserslautern and Grafenwöhr communities last year in an effort to soothe the discomfort that surrounds medical and counseling appointments.

Advocates increasingly see a role for dogs beyond hospitals and combat zones and within the garrisons that more soldiers will likely call home in the coming years.

“This is to help soldiers, kids, whoever, with the stress of deployment while their parents are away, with recovery from deployment,” said Mark Hooper, director of Grafenwöhr’s Red Cross, which placed Cash and another dog on post last year and hopes to place more in the future.

The benefits have been visible in Europe since 2000, when the Landstuhl Red Cross began asking volunteers to bring their pets to visit patients at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Raffaella Burriss, a volunteer with the program since 2003 and its current chairwoman, said servicemembers opened up when they saw their four-legged visitors.

“They would recall their own pets,” she said. “You would break the ice talking about their pets. The majority have dogs or cats. You start a very relaxing conversation . . . and they just open up and talk.”

Animals provide a window to reach soldiers who find therapy foreign and pets comforting, said Dr. Carol Haertlein Sells, an occupational therapist with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a former researcher at Brooke Army Medical Center.

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“You have 45 minutes with a patient, and you may spend the first 20 minutes getting them comfortable, establishing that rapport,” Sells said. “The dog helps facilitate that, opening up communication.”

The Army recognized the potential in late 2007, when it began deploying occupational therapists with dogs as part of Combat Stress Control teams, roving groups of mental health experts sent to combat areas. Capt. Cecilia Najera was one of the first handlers, deploying to Iraq in 2008 to work with a Labrador retriever.

“It made us a little more approachable,” said Najera, who now works at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. “People were more likely to talk to us than turn away from us. When you say you’re from mental health, no one wants to talk to you. The dog actually started conversations.”

In Vilseck, part of the Grafenwöhr community, WTU social worker Wendy DeVault had a similar thought when she approached Hooper last summer and asked to bring a certified dog into her office, where she often counsels soldiers. Hooper thought it was a good idea, and, lacking a certification program, turned to Landstuhl as a model.

Today, the dogs certified in Grafenwöhr must meet a checklist of requirements, including registration on post and current vaccinations. They must also pass an American Kennel Club test that measures temperament and training. Each dog’s owner is its handler, and each is responsible for the costs and time that come with caring for the dog.

By September, Hooper’s program had certified two dogs, both placed in Rose Barracks. Cash now comes to work daily with DeVault. Lucy, a 6-year-old golden retriever owned by retired sailor Richard Wiebe, greets morning visitors in the Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic waiting room.

Cash quickly became popular in the unit, DeVault said. At a forum the garrison held for WTU soldiers last year, one soldier held and stroked the dog as he listened to speakers.

“It’s kind of amazing,” DeVault remarked. “You can see someone who’s angry and maybe had a bad day and then this little black dog jumps up in his lap, and it kind of changes the atmosphere.”

Wiebe and Lucy were originally asked to visit the TBI clinic twice a week, he said; they now visit daily. Officials at the clinic declined to speak about Lucy’s role for this article and did not allow a reporter to speak with patients. Wiebe said his experience has been a positive one.

“A couple of the soldiers will come over and they’ll sit right down on the floor with her like a kid,” he said. “I talked with a couple of them and they told me it calms them down.”

Randy Click, a coordinator with the Grafenwöhr program, said he’s optimistic about getting the dogs into other buildings on post, including the local Behavioral Health clinic, where doctors counsel soldiers, family members and children. Brian Olden, chief of behavioral health for Bavaria Medical Department Activity, said he’d like the agency to consider the concept.

Research on the use of animals with servicemembers remains slim, said Sells, and the Army is looking for data to justify programs. Najera, too, said the deployment of dogs with occupational therapists, though ongoing, remains a pilot program. The dogs are owned by the Army, she noted, meaning the service pays for care, training and deployment.

It’s a different story in Kaiserslautern, where social worker Azra Surhio pays the bills and handles training for her puppy, Elsie, an 8-month old black-and-brown Swiss Appenzeller she recently brought into her office with the approval of the local WTU commander.

Surhio said having a dog for her practice was a longtime goal, and one she researched thoroughly. Certification through the Landstuhl Red Cross is a goal for later this year, once Elsie is better trained, she said. The dog has adapted quickly to her new role, says Surhio, who believes Elsie can sense emotions.

“She walks up to the soldiers and she can tell if they’re interested in her or not,” she said. “If they are, she’s right there to be petted and be all friendly. And if she can tell that the soldier isn’t interested in her, she just goes away and she just lays down.”

On a recent weekday, three soldiers in Surhio’s unit stopped by to see her and Elsie. Each lingered to play with the dog.

Spc. Devin Stout gave her a good scratch. Spc. Ashley Adkins allowed herself to be licked in the face. Maj. Mark Johnson played Elsie a song on his guitar.

“When I’m in there talking to Azra, it feels more like a home setting,” Stout said. “I can feel more relaxed. There’s an animal there, and she just makes me feel more at home.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Josh DeMotts contributed to this report.

beardsleys@estripes.osd.mil

Correction

The name of the chairwoman of the Landstuhl American Red Cross Pets and Warriors program was misspelled in the original version of this story. Her name is Raffaella Burriss. Also, the story incorrectly stated that Richard Wiebe is a retired teacher. Wiebe retired from the Navy, then worked at a school for several years.

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