Seated in a circle of chairs, members of the group took turns giving the dog commands.
“Whitney, lap!” said one member. A young, golden-haired retriever sporting a purple service vest bounded to the appropriate chair and plopped her two front paws in the caller’s lap, looking up with anticipation.
“Good girl, Whitney!” The participant said, rewarding the dog with a handful of Cheerios.
Another dog, Yoko, looked on intently from a grooming table, waiting for her turn to train. In a few more months, Yoko and Whitney would be ready to work full-time as service dogs to disabled veterans, helping with tasks such as opening doors, turning lights on and off and retrieving dropped items.
From the Paws for Purple Hearts organization, Whitney and Yoko are part of a nationwide trend toward enlisting the help of man’s best friend as an emotional salve for the lasting effects of war.
Soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan often bear the hidden scars, now called the “signature wounds” of combat: post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. An estimated one in five servicemembers who have been deployed suffer from PTSD, according to a 2008 Rand study.
From in-patient care to computer-based virtual worlds, the Army is employing several methods to help counter emotional scarring. More recently, service dog organizations began to realize the companionship and responsibility that come from working with animals could help soothe PTSD.
Rick Yount, program director for Paws for Purple Hearts"where wounded Soldiers help train service dogs for more seriously disabled veterans"said the program’s success could, in part, be attributed to duty.
Duty to fellow veterans is something all Soldiers take seriously, Yount said, and in some cases, it may be the only reason they have to get up in the morning.
“It sounds so simple,” Yount said of his organization’s comprehensive approach. “But there’s nothing wrong with simple answers to difficult problems.”
The psychology behind why Yount’s program works is a bit more complicated"yet, he said, working with dogs sometimes reaches those with the most severe PTSD.
Yount, a social worker for 24 years, explained that the idea for Paws for Purple Hearts came to him one day while watching the news. In 2006, Yount had already been working as a service dog trainer at Bergin University in California, and while watching the increasing reports about servicemembers returning from deployments with PTSD and TBI, he realized they would be excellent service dog trainers.
Yount explained that many wounded Soldiers suffering from PTSD are emotionally numb, and may try to isolate themselves. Furthermore, he said PTSD is also sometimes coupled with depression, insomnia, hyper-vigilance and nervousness in crowds.
The program"which began at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System’s Menlo Park, Calif., facility in 2008"has branched out to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. The WRAMC program, sponsored by Finmeccanica-North America, is located near the Warrior Transition Battalion, so recovering Soldiers have easy access.
Yount said since the program started, about 150 servicemembers have participated in the training. Upon completion of about two years of training, the service dogs are placed with disabled veterans free of charge.
Yount explained that working with the animals is especially beneficial for those with emotional numbness, because the training forces troops to get back in touch with those neglected feelings.
“There’s no way you can isolate when you have a service dog and you’re training in the community,” Yount said. “People are going to come up to you and interact with you"there’s no way out of it.”
Yount explained how the approach follows a complementary cognitive-behavioral therapy method. In order to give dogs proper commands and praise, Soldiers have to appear happy and excited when a dog excels. Furthermore, troops have to reassure a dog that loud noises, busy streets and large crowds are safe and normal.
“You have to learn how to sound like Richard Simmons,” Yount quipped about training and giving praise to dogs.
The beauty of the process is that while reassuring a dog in training, Soldiers are also teaching themselves that they are safe, Yount explained.
“I have to challenge my automatic thoughts immediately to praise this dog and tell him that a car backfiring is a great thing, and that it’s OK,” Yount said.
He added that the dogs are also a “social lubricant,” stimulating interactions with the public. For those who have become withdrawn, the dogs become an instant conversation starter, one that Soldiers cannot ignore.
Yount said servicemembers have credited training service dogs with saving their lives and marriages and improving their parenting abilities. He said one Soldier who required heavy sleep-aid medication due to severe insomnia slept six hours straight the first night he took one of the dogs home. Another Soldier told Yount the program saved his marriage because prior to working with the dogs, he was treating his pre-schooler like a private.
“Learning to train this dog taught me how to give praise and how to connect with my 3-year-old,” the Soldier said.
The companionship and solace provided by the dogs have changed some troops’ lives.
“We have powerful anecdotal evidence of more than one veteran saying ‘this dog saved my life,’” Yount explained.
Often working with the dogs not only gives the Soldiers comfort and something to look forward to, but also provides a sense of purpose, Yount said.
“I’ve spent almost 30 years in the military and there’s a reason for it,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Francis Young, who first joined the Army in 1976. “It’s a way of life that’s a brotherhood…I’d like to give back.”
The helicopter pilot began working with Paws for Purple Hearts about a year ago after he was sent to Walter Reed for neck surgery. Young, who said he’s compounded several injuries and may need more surgeries after “playing Army too long,” saw the Paws team walking outside one day and simply asked the trainers about the program.
“I find it very therapeutic,” Young said. “I’ve always been around animals, and grew up with them and I enjoy working with the dogs.”
Young explained that he would be seeking a service dog himself to help him with balance after he’s discharged, and added that he’d like to see more Soldiers participating in the program.
“There’s a lot of dogs that are needed, so the more people you have to train them, the more service dogs there will be,” said Young.
Sergeant Seyward McKinney, an operating room specialist who is partially paralyzed on the right side of her body, said she enjoys the prospect of training the dogs for other veterans.
“I’m definitely glad to be helping others, but at the same time the training’s beneficial for me too, so it’s a win-win,” she said.
McKinney has a brain arteriovenous malformation, or AVM: an abnormal connection between arteries and veins that appears as tangles of normal and dilated blood vessels. Following treatment for her AVM, she suffered a stroke, which caused the partial paralysis.
“Being able to have the companionship of the dogs and teach them how to do things is the best,” McKinney said of the program. She added that giving the dogs commands has helped her with the rehabilitation of her voice, which was also damaged by the stroke.
McKinney has also applied for a service dog once she completes her recovery. She said she’s planning to fly to California"where the dogs finalize their training"in April to pick one out. Young was quick to point out that the dogs are the ones who do the picking.
Lieutenant Col. Matthew St. Laurent, the assistant chief of occupational therapy at Walter Reed, said training dogs for other wounded veterans fits well into the Warrior Transition Battalion’s requirement that all Soldiers participate in a “work and education” program.
Injury permitting, St. Laurent explained that most of the wounded warriors assigned to Walter Reed must pursue an interest or activity not related to their physical recovery to prepare them for life after the hospital. With a focus on reintegration, Soldiers engage in college classes, participate in on- and off-post internships and work on their resumes and interview skills.
“There’s a lot of things we try to do with our patients with mental health concerns, and this is just one of them,” St. Laurent said. “In this program you get instant feedback.”
St. Laurent said that Paws for Purple Hearts is considered an internship, and Soldiers can participate from a few months up to a year, depending on how long their projected stay at Walter Reed is. They are required to be on time, ready to train on the days of the week they signed up for.
“What brings them out of their rooms is that they know they have a living, breathing animal that needs them,” said Heidi Bonorato, an instructor and dog trainer for Paws for Purple Hearts.
Bonorato and trainer Carolyn Ford said they have witnessed changes in many of the Soldiers participating in the program. Ford said she often notices increased interaction between the Soldiers in the program as well as Soldier’s facial expressions changing"as if they can feel emotions again.
“I thought there was no better experience than working with sick animals,” said Bonorato, a former animal hospital worker. “But now I not only get to work with dogs, but (I) get to work with wounded warriors. It’s extremely rewarding.”
Neither Ford nor Bonorato had worked in a military setting before.
“To meet the Soldiers and have them share their experiences makes me certainly have a lot more respect for the military,” Ford said.
“I feel like this is a really great opportunity for me to give back,” Bonorato agreed.
Giving back has proven to be a common thread in the Paws for Purple Hearts theme. The first service dog Yount trained for the program was Gabriel, a golden retriever he received as a gift from a Marine friend. Yount explained that his friend gave him the puppy 15 years ago when he was going through a rough time.
“The program has truly come full circle,” Yount said, adding that Gabriel has now fathered many of the service dogs in the program. “You never know where a simple act of kindness will lead.”
Paws for Purple Hearts is not the only service-dog organization for wounded veterans"many others train and donate dogs using their own methods, such as Paws4Vets, Hero Dogs Inc., Patriot Paws, Vet Dogs, Freedom Service Dogs and Puppies Behind Bars.
“It’s not for everybody, but it seems to work on the people who are struggling the most,” Yount said of dog-training programs.
He said that the program has done much better than he first expected. Plans are now underway to conduct research at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence to provide viable statistics on the benefits of PTSD patients working with service dogs. He also hopes to expand the program to five additional VA locations in the future.
For Yount, the most rewarding aspect of the program is the lives that are changed through canine companionship.
“I don’t think there’s anything better than having one of our wounded warriors expressing that getting involved in this program saved their life…that’s the most meaningful thing that I could hear.”
Alexandra Hemmerly-Brown worked for the Army News Service at the time this article was written.