By Jen Rodriguez / Special to American Forces Press ServiceJuly 16, 2007
FORT SAM HOUSTON, July 6, 2007 - Sweetheart, Jackson and Ellie Mae, three pooches, are helping to change the lives of wounded warriors at Brooke Army Medical Center here.
The mixed beagle, German shepherd and Lhasa Apso are therapy dogs trained to console soldiers, family members and sometimes medical staff with reassuring hugs and occasionally dog kisses.
"There's a bond between humans and animals," explained dog trainer Charlie Brugnola, of Silver Lakes, Calif. "Pets help us to deal with stress and put us in a mood that is beneficial to us."
Brugnola and his wife, Sally, brought the dogs to the hospital during June as part of the Delta Society of San Antonio Chapter Therapy Dog Program at the medical center.
"In the eyes of the wounded warriors we see a light, a light of determination and tenacity. That light glows when making contact with the eyes of Sweetheart," Brugnola said. "She looks deep into their eyes, conveying a message -- a message only she and the soldier truly comprehend. And therein lies the magic, the wonderment and the connection these animals give to humans, the ability to bond and heal in very profound ways beyond human ability."
Sweetheart, a mixed beagle, has a direct connection with soldiers and anyone who meets her. That connection is tied to a near-fatal incident that occurred several years ago.
Left to die in a burning house, Sweetheart was rescued when a witness saw the terribly burned dog sit up and wag her tail. A doctor performed skin grafts and was amazed by the canine's determination. Several people were involved with Sweetheart's recovery.
"Sweetheart is a burn survivor that inspires, motivates and melts hearts," Brugnola said. "Throughout her life, Sweetheart has repaid this obligation by helping other people."
"A number of patients felt a special kinship with Sweetheart, because of her experience of overcoming severe burns," said Chaplain (Col.) Daniel Moll, chief of the Ministry Department at Brooke Army Medical Center. "A friendly nuzzle or lick from a puppy is always a positive experience for our patients here. There's a special connection for those in the burn treatment ward."
To share Sweetheart's survivor skills, the Brugnolas decided to visit the wounded soldiers at BAMC.
"It's phenomenal what takes place here," Sally said. "We are in awe and humbled by the very men and women we strive to serve. These young soldiers and their families are an inspiration to us."
During a three-week visit, Sweetheart and Jackson, a German shepherd, laid next to soldiers during mat workouts at the Center for the Intrepid, a state-of-the-art rehabilitation center here, and Ellie Mae, a Lhasa Apso, rode on the laps of soldiers in wheelchairs, all the while giving kisses.
Also, the dogs wagged a greeting to anyone within petting distance during long strolls through the hallways.
Army Sgt. Joy Nelson, an occupational therapist assistant, knows firsthand about the work of therapy dogs.
"Everyone I saw, I told them about the dogs. When patients talked about the pain, I'd tell them about the dogs. I'd say a dog can't tell you how bad it hurts," Nelson said. "And then the patient's mind would get redirected."
Nelson said one patient with a head injury had not responded as he should have until "he played with the dogs for about five minutes."
"That afternoon, he started talking more," Nelson said. "The next day he was up walking around, called his parents and was discharged from the hospital."
"There's a special connection," Moll said. "Pet therapy brings a sense of home normalcy to patients who are in the healing process.
Brugnola echoed Moll's remarks. "After the patient spent time with the dogs, it triggered that he had a dog and that he needed to take care of it."
"Animals, dogs, have been put on earth for very special reasons," Brugnola added. "We, as humans, are just starting to realize their special purpose."