New leash on life: Service dogs, trained by and for wounded warriors

By C.J. LIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 14, 2015

BROOKEVILLE, Md. — Meet Ron.

He has helped hundreds of servicemembers suffering from PTSD. He works at Walter Reed National Medical Center in a Navy camo harness. His title? Animal co-therapist.

Ron is a 3-year-old yellow Labrador retriever — a facility dog who works at Walter Reed and the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda, Md. The Department of Defense institute is dedicated to studying and healing servicemembers with traumatic brain injury and psychological issues.

He is among the first service dogs produced by the nonprofit Warrior Canine Connection. Wounded warriors train the dogs to help other wounded warriors. The training helps the veterans readjust socially, easing the transition to post-combat life. Once the dogs graduate, they’re placed with a permanent companion or “career,” as the trainers call it.

GALLERY | Warrior Canine Connection dogs take a snow day

The dogs who make it through the program have been placed as service dogs for mobility-impaired veterans, therapy dogs at medical facilities and military family support dogs, where their job is to help the family adjust to their servicemember’s PTSD. The ones that don’t graduate still make great pets, trainers say.

Capt. Bob Koffman, a Navy psychiatrist who retired last month after 32 years, works with Ron. Koffman is the chief medical consultant at the nonprofit, which also pairs with military and civilian experts to determine the science behind dogs helping veterans with PTSD and TBI.

Ron, who was in WCC’s first graduating class, “immediately breaks the ice,” Koffman said. “I can’t do in 10 hours what Ron does in 10 minutes. There’s a tremendous psychological resistance. It’s the reason why people don’t want to talk. It’s a burden that needs to be overcome.”

Ron is trained to pull tissues for servicemembers — without slobbering too much — and will rest his head in their laps or lay at their feet when he senses they need soothing. He’s trained to do a “war cry” and “war face” — tricks that aren’t part of the therapy but are popular among veterans, Koffman said.

“Not uncommonly, my patients will lay with Ron on the ground, petting him or using him as a headrest. He is specifically trained to comfort individuals, particularly as they’re having a difficult time,” he said. “And I don’t know too many patients that when they’re telling their stories, that they’re not having a difficult time.”

Studies underway

How does it work? That’s what researchers want to know.

In 2013, military medicine researchers at the Uniformed University of the Health Services in Bethesda were awarded a $750,000 DOD grant to find out. WCC is collaborating with them on that study. It’s too early for results, Koffman says, but the area of study has garnered even more support: Congress OK’d $7 million last year for research after hearing that servicemembers with PTSD at the center and Walter Reed were improving as they worked with the dogs.

In calling for the funding, the House Armed Services Committee’s report cited decreased depressive symptoms, improved emotional regulation, improved sleep patterns, a greater sense of purpose, better reintegration into their communities, pain reduction and improved parenting skills.

“We have a few very interesting studies underway to see how and why [the dogs] are such wonderful co-therapists and assistants and partners,” Koffman said. “It possibly has to do with their incredibly keen sense of smell and whatever neurotransmitters or hormones we release. We’re looking at the biomarkers that are released and the chemical reactions that they’re cuing from.”

‘A 180 for me’

Retired Marine Cpl. Nick Gervasoni doesn’t know the science, but he knows that Penny, who is part of WCC’s most recent graduating class from Oct. 2014, has given him a new lease on life.

Gervasoni served seven years as a military police officer in the Marine Corps, including deployments to Afghanistan, and injured his back in 2012 before being medically retired in November. He had worked with WCC’s dogs during therapy sessions at Fort Belvoir and had been applying for his own service dog with different organizations before WCC matched him with Penny.

Besides being able to brace Gervasoni to help him into standing position, Penny will open the door or fetch items, and watches for signs of his PTSD: twiddling his thumbs, tapping his knee.

“She’ll pick up on it and jump up in my lap and nibble on my ear, push my hands away,” Gervasoni said. “Sometimes she does it persistently until I stop. You get frustrated or annoyed sometimes because you’re having a bad moment, then you realize this dog is doing its job, it’s pushing you to stop doing what you’re doing. It’s definitely a comforting factor.”

Before Penny, Gervasoni avoided going out in public. But having a dog means having to take the dog out. And Gervasoni has come to enjoy spending time with her on hikes or at the dog park, where people approach him to talk about the dog. It forces him to interact with people, but on topics where the attention isn’t focused on him, and so he’s slowly readjusting to normal life.

“It was kind of a 180 for me. She’s been my second chance,” Gervasoni said. “She’s definitely given me something I didn’t have before to help keep pushing forward. I still have my issues and whatnot, but she definitely helps.”

Penny’s litter mates are also with servicemembers.

Abby is a service dog for an Air Force veteran. Lucky is a therapy dog at Walter Reed. Levi, who is graduating this year, is slated to become a military family support dog. Ruby and Grace were not suited to be service or therapy dogs, but were placed as pets with military families. Ron was not part of the first litter, but was trained with them at the center.

Moving forward

Since WCC’s founding in October 2011, 57 dogs have participated in the program and 11 have been placed. Two classes have graduated, and its largest class will graduate in September. The group estimates that the dogs have helped 3,000 servicemembers, including at its program at the VA hospital in Menlo Park, Calif.

Most of the dogs in WCC’s first graduating class have found success.

Gabe II was placed as a mobility service dog for a soldier. Ron is at Walter Reed and the center. Navi is a facility dog at the Neurorestorative Brain Injury Rehabilitation Center in Germantown, Md. Freedom didn't graduate, but ended up with a military family.

And Birdie, a black lab, found that he didn’t have to give up his foster parent. During training, Birdie stayed with Marine veteran Jon Gordon, who suffers from TBI and PTSD after driving over three roadside bombs in six weeks during a 2010 deployment to Afghanistan.

The pair had such a strong bond that Birdie was placed with him permanently. Together, they teach classes about service dogs to veterans at a VA in Michigan, where they live.

At home, Birdie helps Gordon sleep and socialize and be a better father to his 8-year-old daughter. He makes life more tolerable.

“Before him, I was in a stalemate, a pity party, thinking. ‘Why did this happen? Why did I get blown up?’ ’’Gordon said. “Now I see that I need to move forward.”

Twitter: @cjlinSS

Videographer, photographer: @mjtibbs

Retired Marine Cpl. Nick Gervasoni poses with his dog Penny in February 2015.

Warrior Canine Connection dogs take a snow day