Wounded, ill, and injured warriors seeking to treat many of the unseen symptoms of stress have an internship at their disposal designed to help them face those challenges through interaction with a few eager canine companions.
The Walter Reed Wounded Warrior Service Dog Training Program, or WWSDTP, internship provides therapy while allowing military service members on Naval Support Activity Bethesda, or NSAB, and Fort Belvoir, Virginia, to train dogs, which will later be given to other disabled warriors.
“What’s unique about the service dog training program is that we work with clinicians here from occupational therapists to recreational therapists and social workers to set goals with the service members. The goals will help them, as they train the service dogs, to eventually transition back to the civilian world,” said Carolyn Ford, a service dog training instructor for the program, who hails from Lawrence, Massachusetts.
“Some of the specific goals that we help them with include socialization, emotional regulation and reduction of isolation, because a lot of times [wounded warriors] will go to appointments and then go back to their rooms, isolating themselves, so we want to get them out and get them active,” Ford said.
“The program can help people, who have trauma, depression, anxiety and stress [among other conditions],” said Col. Matthew St. Laurent, chief of occupational therapy/department of rehabilitation for the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and a Portsmouth, New Hampshire native, who oversees the program.
“We all know that through the human-animal bond there is an endocrine hormonal production going on called oxytocin which is a ‘feel good’ hormone,” St. Laurent said. “So training a service dog can help someone, who may be going through PTSD or depression. We know that it relaxes them and calms their nerves.”
Military service members are recommended for the program by people on their care team to include nurse case managers, primary care managers, occupational therapists, recreational therapists, or social workers among others.
Once they are accepted into the program, the service member goes to work with service dog trainers during train-the-trainer sessions. For the first sessions, the service members spend time developing a bond with the dogs they’re training.
Over the course of the program, participants learn how to groom the animals, brush their teeth, clip their nails, check for any possible health issues, train the dogs to ignore distractions and teach the dogs various tasks that will allow them to assist veterans who have physical disabilities.
Service dogs learn as many as 90 tasks during the training to include picking up dropped keys, retrieving things from the refrigerator, helping people undress, open doors and turn off light switches among a host of other duties.
One of the biggest aspects of therapy with regard to training the dogs on commands involves emotional regulation, a complex process, which includes the ability to regulate one’s state or behavior, said Emily Mittelman, a clinical service dog instructor for the program whose family hails from Ambler, Pennsylvania.
“There’s more to the program than just the socialization piece, the participant in the program can learn emotional regulation by being able to shift their voice to do the correct tones for commands or praise,” Mittelman said. “They are essentially re-training the way they think about talking to people and dogs.”
The emotional regulation, which can help ease stress and depression through mood adjustment, has been compared to giving commands to the dogs in the strong intonation of someone like actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger but then giving praise in a lighter, happy sounding intonation like that of Mickey Mouse.
The program utilizes a positive tone as the dog’s reward which instructors said keeps the dogs engaged to continue training.
“We want to make sure that whatever task we are training the dog to do that we’re giving positive reinforcement so we are rewarding the dog for good behavior,” Mittelman said. “Which means the dog is going to want to do it over and over again.”
“The dog in training may not respond to you if you display a depressive tone,” St. Laurent said. “A dog attends to affection and loves when you cheer it on.”
Service dogs trained in the program are mainly mobility dogs – those trained to help people who have some form of physical disability such as an amputation.
According to St. Laurent, with many service members suffering from survivor’s guilt, making it back from combat when others didn’t, the program offers a way for them to give back to fellow veterans.
“A lot of service members leave the battlefield with a feeling of so much guilt that they may develop post traumatic stress reactions,” St. Laurent said. “I can tell them that I can’t erase their past experiences, but maybe I can provide them some tools for living by inviting them to train a dog for a fellow vet.”
The dogs used for the WWSDTP are loaned to the program by a local non-profit organization, which breeds the dogs specifically to be service animals. The program receives Golden Retrievers or Labrador Retrievers from the organization when the dogs are about 16 weeks old.
Once the dogs complete the program at about the age of two years old, they are returned to the non-profit organization and partake in a graduation ceremony, where they are placed with a wounded, ill or injured veteran.
For Spc. Stephone Carmichael, an infantryman and New York native, who is now a patient assigned to the Warrior Transition Brigade-National Capital Region, or WTB-NCR, the program was a way to help him deal with a traumatic brain injury, also known as TBI, suffered after being injured in an improvised explosive device, or IED, blast in Afghanistan in July 2014.
“It definitely helps me in terms of my TBI as it helps me to recall things better, especially when giving and reciting commands to the service dogs,” Carmichael said. “It’s also a pretty relaxing atmosphere and I like working with the animals.”
“I’ve definitely benefited from the program. It gives me a sense of accomplishment that I’m helping someone else while also helping myself with my TBI,” he added.
When Staff Sgt. Steven Betancourt, a logistics specialist and New York native, who is now assigned as a patient with the WTB-NCR, was severely injured in an accident at Kandahar, Afghanistan, in early 2014, he suffered through the stress of a nearly debilitating spine injury which left him with hip problems and other major issues.
“Learning how to adapt when you’re healing is a whole complicated process, dealing with changes and how to go on with your future. It’s not easy but whenever I get [stressed], I set up times to work with the dogs,” Betancourt said. “When I leave [after working with the dogs], I’m happy, smiling and I have a great time. When you come to work with the dogs your frame of mind changes and everything becomes very calm.”
Having a mobility issue himself, Betancourt said, has allowed him to be uniquely qualified to assist in training a mobility service dog.
“I’m not able to walk like the average person anymore because I have a limp, and due to the spine injury, I’m limited and will never run again,” Betancourt said. “So when I come here, I have the dog walk at my pace, which is not the average person’s pace. The dog has to learn how to adjust to me.”
“So once I leave, this dog will now be able to help someone else with my condition because he’s programmed to walk at a certain pace. It’s great to be able to help a wounded warrior in that way.”
Currently, there are about 12 dogs being trained in the WWSDTP by wounded, ill or injured warriors at both NSAB and Fort Belvoir.