Finding comfort in training service dogs for other wounded vets
BROOKEVILLE, Md. — Marine Sgt. Jon Gordon hadn’t been able to sleep soundly after driving over three roadside bombs in a six-week period during a 2010 deployment to Afghanistan.
The blasts left him with traumatic brain injury, marked by a constant headache, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety, pain and constantly racing thoughts meant he couldn’t calm down and was averaging only four to five hours of sleep a week.
It wasn’t until recently, after Gordon began training and fostering a future service dog for disabled veterans as part of his own therapy, that the 26-year-old Marine got any shut-eye at all.
“I got six hours of sleep, like dead to the world sleep,” said Gordon, describing the first time that Birdie, a black Labrador, spent the night. “Why it works, I don’t know. There’s something about a dog.”
Gordon is among dozens of wounded warriors who have trained potential service dogs as part of Warrior Canine Connection, a nonprofit therapy program founded in October 2011. Veterans with PTSD or TBI who are in therapy at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda and Fort Belvoir, Va. are taught to train the dogs as part of their healing process.
“They’ve learned how to be very good warriors, and they’re dealing with hypervigilance and emotional numbing and a lot of symptoms of combat stress,” said Rick Yount, executive director of WCC. “I’m not saying for a second you have to be happy. But if you’re going to train the dog, here’s a reason to pretend to be happy. And there’s the concept of ‘fake it until you make it.’”
The puppies, Golden or Labrador retrievers, are bred specifically for the program. If they complete the training and are deemed to be suitable service dogs, WCC matches them with a mobility-impaired veteran.
Now coming up on its one-year anniversary, WCC has a new batch of 6-week-old Golden retriever puppies and is getting ready to place its first service dog. WCC will start looking for a match for Gabe, a 16-month-old Golden retriever, in about two months.
It takes about 18 months to determine if the dog will be suitable for service, according to Molly Morelli, Yount’s wife and dog program director for WCC. What makes a good service dog is a “laid-back dog, a dog that’s very willing to please,” Morelli said. “No fear, no aggression, and a very, very healthy dog.”
About 85 wounded warriors have been involved with training the puppies at Walter Reed’s National Intrepid Center of Excellence, which researches PTSD and TBI treatments. Unlike Gordon, most of the servicemembers will not foster a dog and will only work with the puppies during therapy sessions. There, they are taught to train the puppies in more than 90 commands and how to use positive reinforcement or correct behavior with a firm voice.
“Here’s a chance, while they’re in treatment, to help out their buddies,” Yount said. “It really pulls in the ultimate motivation for this group: the warrior ethos. It’s the whole aspect of doing something for a fellow veteran that makes it as powerful as it is.”
Having the wounded warriors train the pups also helps them deal with their own issues on several levels, Yount said. It gives the servicemembers a sense of purpose, and the dogs act as a social lubricant around strangers.
“When you go out in public and somebody sees you … it’s all focused on you,” said Gordon, who is in therapy at Walter Reed. “When you have a dog, they’re asking questions about the dog. So it gives you a safe buffer. They’re there to talk about the dog and not you and what happened to you.”
Before he started working with Birdie, Gordon refused to leave his apartment. He went weeks without talking to anyone. His relationship with his 5-year-old daughter, Hailey, suffered.
Now, with the help of Birdie, he’s able to take Hailey to the zoo, to go swimming, to go out to eat. And by training the rambunctious puppies, his parenting skills have improved, too, he said.
“My anxiety is all better,” he said. “My relationship with my daughter is better. Just my ability to be out in public and be around people, I can stand it now. ... I’m not perfect, I’m not fixed by any means, but I’m better.”
The program also helps the GIs learn to readapt to a noncombat environment because they have to teach the dogs not to be afraid, said Yount, a social worker who started a similar program in California in 2008.
“You hear a car backfire and you immediately think it’s dangerous. But we want the dogs to do the opposite,” Yount said. “We want the dog who’s pulling a vet’s wheelchair … to keep pulling the wheelchair. So for the vets to be responsible for teaching the dog that the world’s a safe place, it’s a fantastic way to get them to teach themselves that, because to convince a dog that a car backfiring is a great thing, you have to challenge your own immediate thoughts that it’s something else.”
Working with a dog also helps lower stress and anxiety levels, and studies have shown it helps release oxytocin, a hormone essential to social bonding, said Meg Daley Olmert, director of WCC’s research and development and the author of “Made For Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond.”
“Our soldiers just get down and hug these dogs and bury their face in them,” Olmert said. “That tactile sensory merging is a powerful release of oxytocin. And that’s why it’s like nothing else.”
WCC hopes that the work done with these veterans will convince the military to adopt it as a standard form of treatment for troops with PTSD or TBI.
About 80 percent of a typical litter will go on to become service dogs, said Morelli, who’s been training dogs for 10 years. The ones that don’t make it often become therapy dogs or end up living with someone who works at a VA hospital or rehabilitation center, she said.
“The dogs have to have a servant’s heart to do this,” Yount said.
For Gordon, who will apply to have his own service dog once he’s done with therapy, that means Birdie, now 2 years old, will soon be leaving him for another veteran in need.
“I’m going to lose someone that I’ve loved and who’s helped me through this last year. I probably wouldn’t be here without him,” said Gordon, who will be medically retired from the Marine Corps and plans to move to Michigan where he will continue training dogs while pursuing a degree in occupational therapy.
“It’s going to be sad, but it’s going to be great, all at the same time,” Gordon said. “There’s no better feeling than helping somebody else out.”
For more information, visit warriorcanineconnection.org.