Soldiers serving in Iraq have some new "best friends." Budge and Boe, two black Labrador retrievers, have enlisted to help soldiers who are dealing with mental-health issues among the severe stresses of combat.

The dogs were donated to the Army by VetDogs, a subsidiary of Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, Inc. This non-profit organization based in Smithtown, N.Y., provides service animals for disabled veterans.

Staff Sgt. Mike Calaway and Staff Sgt. Jack Greene spent the second week of December in New York learning to care for and work with the dogs. Calaway and Greene are occupational therapy assistants with the 85th Medical Detachment (Combat Stress Control), which provides behavioral-health support for U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

"The therapy dogs are an innovative approach to help establish working relationships with command and assist in developing rapport with soldiers," Maj. Stacie M. Caswell, commander of the 85th, said in an email from Iraq. "The dog's presence in the unit areas will help to build unit morale and cohesion. The love of animals will be the common ground to increase understanding, build empathy and foster compassion, which are essential components for healing."

"The dog is a modality to break the ice and to break down the negative stigma of mental health," said Greene. "I'm overly ecstatic about this. I see this having a good effect on the soldiers."

"These are very well-trained and well-disciplined dogs," said Calaway.

The dogs have been trained by Mike Sergeant of VetDogs to work despite loud noises or other distractions, and not to socialize with people who may be afraid or disinterested.

"The dogs are obedience trained. If a soldier does not want to interact with the dog all he has to do is raise his hand, and the dog will turn away from that soldier," Sergeant said.

Calaway and Greene, in turn, have learned basic dog-handling skills.

"We are starting to form a bond with the dogs. We are learning basic commands and how to handle the dogs when there are distractions around," Greene said.
Dogs and other animals are used in hospital settings for various forms of therapy, and to assist people who are blind or otherwise partially disabled. VetDogs has previously donated dogs to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for such programs. Military working dogs are used in military deployments for such missions as guard patrols and bomb detection. However, this will be the first time dogs have been used to facilitate mental-health therapy in a combat environment.

"Research has shown that the use of therapy dogs helps to reduce stress and anxiety levels and increases the feeling of safety of patients participating in traditional therapeutic behavior health groups," Caswell wrote in requesting approval to start the animal-assisted therapy.

"It is known by common experience that when the (military police) or (explosive ordnance disposal) teams bring dogs into groups of soldiers experiencing stressors on the battlefield that these groups will open up: they respond to the dogs with smiles and become more talkative," she wrote.

When the 85th finishes its tour and returns to the U.S. next spring, Budge and Boe will stay to continue work with the 528th Medical Detachment (Combat Stress Control).

"When the therapy dogs are unable to perform their mission they will redeploy and several options will be available in accordance with the donation agreement signed by VetDogs and the Army Surgeon General. The dogs may be transferred to a medical facility and continue their therapy service, they can be returned to VetDogs or, upon approval by the U.S. Army, they can be adopted by a service member," Caswell said.

Caswell said she expects the dogs to come into contact with about 500 soldiers and civilians a week while they are working.

"It is hoped that the dogs will help to overcome the barriers to accessing mental-health care by dissolving the stigma associated with providers in this field," she said. "The initial relationships the dogs help to facilitate with the soldiers and their command will theoretically allow the soldiers to see that the (combat stress control) team members are caring, reasonable people that want to help. It follows that soldiers will be more inclined to seek our services in the future. Establishing strong, positive relationships has consistently been associated with positive outcomes."

"Most Americans love dogs. As our commander Maj. Caswell says, sometimes all someone needs is a lick in the face," Greene said.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16