By Elizabeth M. CollinsMarch 4, 2009
WASHGINTON (Army News Service, March 4, 2008) - It's a win-win situation for wounded and sick Soldiers recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and homeless dogs waiting for adoption at the Washington Humane Society.
Soldiers take classes in animal behavior and practice training dogs twice a week at the Humane Society. The dogs get training that makes them more adoptable and some much-needed attention.
The Soldiers get out of the hospital with something to take their minds off their treatments or medical boards. They get exercise, affection and some positive re-enforcement.
"The Humane Society's nice, because it's not just an internship program," said Sara Meisinger, occupational therapist for the Warrior Transition Brigade at Walter Reed and supervisor of the Occupational Therapy Work and Education Program.
"I feel like it's education and an internship combined, which is excellent because then they're getting the best of both worlds," Meisinger said. "The folks at the Humane Society are providing education and training our warriors on how to train dogs. So they're learning about dog behavior and training techniques and psychology of dogs.
"They're learning all of that, and while they're doing that, they're working with shelter dogs. So they're giving back by training a shelter dog, which is then going to be more adoptable and find a home and not be in the shelter any more."
Meisinger identifies Soldiers for the program, which was dreamed up last Spring by the Humane Society. The organization is located across the street from Walter Reed's main gate and volunteers walking the dogs noticed how recovering Soldiers were drawn to them.
Humane Society trainer
"They would always light up and be really enthusiastic and excited to interact and visit with the dogs," said Kevin Simpson of the Humane Society, who designed and runs the program. "I think that was the first step as far as seeing the need.
"They're right across the street and we have an entire campus of recovering Soldiers who have a lot of time in their days for the most part, and we have a lot of dogs and animals who need that extra human interaction and training and companionship," Simpson said. "So it was just seeing that need and figuring out a way to put the two together."
Simpson created the program for three or four Soldiers at a time in three eight-week segments that build upon each other. Soldiers don't have to complete all three courses, but if they do, they learn about everything from training dogs with basic commands like sit and stay to grooming to understanding animal behavior.
One group of Soldiers has completed all three sections, another is part way through, and a third is just beginning.
Each biweekly lesson begins with a short lecture and then the dogs arrive for the practical training. Simpson usually begins teaching the Soldiers with one of his dogs or other staff members' dogs. That way, the Soldiers can become more comfortable with how to issue commands and their body language before working with the completely untrained shelter dogs.
Throughout the course of the internship, Soldiers will work with dogs of all breeds, shapes, sizes and personalities.
"We've learned how to make dogs sit, recognize their names, how to heel, how to leave things alone without bothering it. Just a lot of training of dogs and their reactions and personalities," said Staff Sgt. Ladeaner Williams after completing a lesson in dog agility and guiding dogs through a series of obstacles.
Williams is undergoing treatment at Walter Reed for post traumatic stress disorder and is waiting to complete her medical board. In the meantime, she thought that working with the dogs would be a good way to develop her interest in becoming a veterinarian. The dogs also have the added benefit of helping her relax.
"I look forward to this every Tuesday and Thursday," she explained. "The dogs look forward to it. It's kind of sad. You train the dogs and you come back the next week and they may be adopted, so you don't get to work with them again. But it's nice to know that they are being adopted and that the training is paying off."
The Soldiers don't know how long they may have to work with a particular dog before it is adopted. Simpson hopes the dogs will be adopted long before they attain true, competitive obedience standards, but he said feedback from families who have adopted dogs the Soldiers trained, has been great. They've been very impressed that their new pets already know some commands, and have said the dogs adjusted very quickly to their new homes.
Like Williams, most of the Soldiers who choose the Humane Society as their occupational therapy internship either have dogs they miss, or are interested in building a career around animals. According to Simpson, one Soldier has gone through all three levels, and comes back to volunteer and train others. He's planning to open his own training or animal daycare business.
Another Soldier, Spc. Kimberlyn Blake, in the second course in December, enjoyed the dogs so much that she usually arrived early for class to spend an extra hour or so with the dogs. She said she hopes to be able to adopt one of the dogs before she returns home to Fort Stewart, Ga.
"It definitely takes the mental state of mind away from everything that has to do with Walter Reed," said Blake, who is recovering from a severe knee injury that her deployment exacerbated. "They know when you're here. They bark when they want your attention. They whine when you leave the room. You might not think that they get it, but they get it. The two days a week, they actually look forward to it. Like, 'Yes, today's the day. I know she's coming.' I do the same thing, kind of look forward to coming to the Humane Society."
It's wonderful, said Sgt. William Richmond, who is also recovering from PTSD as well as chronic knee and back pain, because he loves dogs, and has had many. It also gets him out of his room.
The Humane Society plans to continue the program indefinitely, said Simpson.
"We can't get enough hands on," he said. "That's why our volunteer program is so valuable to us. We're having folks come in who are compassionate for animals and spending time and giving that affection. When you take a dog that is spending its day and night isolated in an individual kennel, they are removed from a pack, and that's abnormal.
"Packs are about leadership and acceptance, which is what we're talking about in today's class. So when you remove and isolate them, for a lot of dogs, that's very stressful. There's a lot of anxiety in them not to have a sense of belonging. So by having that added time with people, they're social creatures, it's the highlight of their days."
(EditorAca,!a,,cs note: This is part three of a series about how dogs are helping wounded Soldiers.)