Soldiers' best friend reports for duty
August 30, 2011
FORT DRUM, N.Y., Aug. 30, 2011 -- As they adjust his collar, he fidgets, slightly uncomfortable with the attention he's receiving. They tell him to sit up straight and look at the camera. He deliberately turns his head away, as if to say, "We're doing this on my terms."
Finally, with a little coaxing, he looks deep into the lens and gives a toothy, lopsided grin. Those standing around him clap at the sight of his cooperation, and a few bystanders even wrap their arms around his neck, telling him what a great job he did. Arnold gives another infectious smile, rolls over on his back, and prepares for his reward of belly rubs and behind-the-ear scratches.
He's made paw prints in four branches of the armed forces, has a canine and human following on Facebook, and logs entries in his own blog.
As a 200-pound English Mastiff, Arnold has spent the past five years populating his resume with therapy hours and hospital visits. His resume now lists him as the newest member of Fort Drum's Army Substance Abuse Program, where on Aug. 5 he received his government ID card.
In 2007, a then 2-year-old Arnold was adopted by Jon Fishman and his wife, Linda.
"If he's given the chance to play, he won't even chase a ball. He wants to interact with people," explained Fishman, ASAP prevention coordinator.
These atypical canine attributes convinced Fishman that there was more to Arnold than met the eye.
So, the couple enrolled Arnold in good citizenship training, a program that would teach their pup basic obedience and prepare him for therapy dog work.
"Research has shown (therapy dogs) reduce stress, anxiety and patience in just about everybody," Fishman explained.
He also noted that studies show patients' blood pressure can be lowered about 15 points when interacting with therapy dogs.
While enrolled in good canine citizenship training, Arnold learned typical commands, such as "come," "sit" and "stay," and how to walk on a leash. The therapy dog portion of the training involved socializing Arnold with people and other animals and getting him used to being in a hospital setting.
After he completed the course, Arnold was put to the test.
His evaluation included everything from testing Arnold's tolerance level to his reaction to noise.
"He's had about half a dozen kids on top of him, pulling his ears, playing with his tail, and he just rolls over and lets them rub his belly," said Fishman, who also trained and was certified with Arnold as his handler.
Instructors dropped books on the ground and rolled carts into walls, testing Arnold's reaction to noise, to ensure he wasn't skittish or jumpy. They also assessed Arnold's threshold for agitation by doing things like touching his feet and gently tugging on his tail.
"About 70 percent of a dog's ability to be a therapy dog is their temperament," Fishman said. "The other 30 percent is training."
Arnold is certified through Therapy Dogs International, which lists him as a registered therapy dog. He carries an ID card, and he must recertify annually. The recertification relies heavily on Fishman's report of how Arnold has performed during the past year, and the dog's health.
Arnold's first gig was with the Marine Corps, where he did therapy dog work around a U.S. Navy hospital.
At his next job, while working with the Air Force, Arnold was part of a traumatic stress response team. There, he was trained to tolerate loud noises, such as sirens and explosions.
"Most people are stunned (when they see Arnold) -- not just to see a dog in the building, but also a dog this size," Fishman said. "I don't know how many times I've (been asked) if I have a saddle for him."
Fishman said Arnold's temperament makes him the ideal type of dog for therapy.
"Particularly with the Mastiffs, they're such a calm breed and they're so gentle," he said.
At another job, Arnold worked with Soldiers from an explosive ordnance disposal unit who were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He worked his magic by sitting with the Soldiers and allowing them to pet him.
Fishman said he believes Arnold is a good candidate to help, because he doesn't ask questions or require anything of the Soldiers.
"Dogs have been used in the treatment of PTSD and acute stress disorders," Fishman said. "People more readily open up to a dog because he's just going to listen."
While at Fort Drum, Arnold will provide a means for Soldier and civilian stress reduction and motivation.
Fishman also plans on bringing Arnold to unit briefings, because "you never know when someone is having a problem and needs to relax."
"By just being there, just his presence alone, he gets through to people, where another person doesn't," he said.