CAMP ATTERBURY, Ind. -- As the young Soldier sat in line Aug. 4 to go through the demobilization process, she whispered into the ear of a dog named Lugnut brought by Dog Trainer Kristi Rush, of Indianapolis.
Lugnut, a 3-year-old Golden Retriever and registered therapy dog, who lives in Indianapolis with the Rush family, recently visited with demobilizing Soldiers returning from a 10-month tour in Afghanistan. Rush escorted Lugnut and three other teams of handlers and dogs through a few buildings to greet the returning Soldiers and staff.
Rush said she wanted to give back to local Soldiers and share her love of dogs. She started Welcome Home Dogs, a volunteer organization of handlers and dogs, who visit Camp Atterbury Soldiers as they work through the mobilization and demobilization process.
“Witnessing what our dogs can offer to these Soldiers who have just come back from overseas, to see them relax and smile and feel the love, my goal has become to get as many teams on board as possible so that we could reach as many of our Soldiers as possible,” said Rush.
Welcome Home Dogs is the brainchild of Rush. She started the program over a year ago, working with dogs and their owners to get them both trained to become pet therapy certified. Her goal was to get a few dogs and handlers certified, so that once permission was given to come to Camp Atterbury, they would be able to spread out to share the love.
“I was so excited when I got the email to help with this program. It is so great to do something to support the troops returning to the states,” said Charlotte Blackketter, owner of 2-year-old Russell.
The first outing to post went better then Rush had expected. Six teams went.
“I knew immediately that we were a success when I saw the look on the Soldiers faces,” said Rush.
The next few visits produced similar results. Rush described the changes that came over the Soldiers when the dogs entered the room and greeted them.
“They begin to smile. Their bodies shift more in their chairs and their posture became more relaxed.
They open up and start to talk about their dogs, past, present and future. Hope pours out of them into the dogs and the dogs just swallow it up without question,” said Rush. “I've had the pleasure of coming to Camp Atterbury several times now, and it never fails to warm my heart when you watch our dogs in action.”
On their last visit to post, Rush recalls a specific incident with a Soldier.
“A female Soldier spotted Lugnut as we walked into the building. She called him right to her. Within five minutes she was sitting on the floor holding on to him, scratching him and smiling. Each time she had to move forward in the line, she made sure that Lugnut moved with her. She wasn't letting go and I think he became a bit of a life line to her,” she said.
Walking around the building, it’s easy to see the positive responses of what it means to Soldiers to have a wagging happy tail show up unexpectedly.
“Lugnut just came up to me and wanted me to pet him. I didn’t expect to see dogs today, it was a good surprise,” said Sgt. 1st Class George Hathaway of Pontiac, Mich., 1225th Corps Support Battalion, Michigan Army National Guard.
Lugnut and the other dogs that join him at each visit must go through a multi-step process to become pet therapy certified.
“It begins with obedience training. Once we have the obedience training accomplished we test for the Canine Good Citizen. Once they have earned that certificate we begin the pet therapy training. It can take several months to go from no training at all to a fully certified pet therapy dog. To become certified, the dog has to be at least 1 year old,” said Rush.
Anyone interested in this program can contact Rush directly at 317-841-8182. For those who live in Southern Indiana, Rush can help them locate someone to assist them closer to Camp Atterbury. Rush said for those who don't have a dog, there are other ways to help by giving of their time or expertise.