WASHINGTON – Throughout centuries of war, dogs have been by service members’ sides, whether they’re helping save lives in the battlefield or helping them heal.
And helping to heal is exactly what man’s best friend is doing in the D.C. area.
Since 1999, dogs at Walter Reed Army Medical Center — and now at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Fort Belvoir and Fort Meade — have helped hundreds of wounded warriors in countless ways, and they continue to do so.
The U.S. Army program is unique. Wounded warriors receive help while they work to train dogs who will one day be full-service mobility dogs for other wounded veterans.
The dogs in training learn over 60 tasks, and when they are 2 years old, they pair up with a wounded veteran to assist in daily life activities.
Wounded soldiers are selected to work in the U.S. Army’s Warrior Transition Brigade (WTB) Service Dog Training Program under the Northern Regional Medical Command during their recovery from catastrophic injuries, such as the loss of a limb.
“The dogs do have a fantastic way of being able to be a physical and emotional support for the soldiers,” says Maeve Carey, an occupational therapist and rehabilitation manager at the WTB at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Carey says the program helps soldiers overcome certain anxieties. It also helps them integrate into the community again.
“There’s a whole kind of array of benefits that come with the program,” Carey says.
The Army says the program has reduced anxiety, frustration, stress and anger in the soldiers who take part in the program. It also helps to improve their communication skills and sleep patterns, and even reduces their use of medication.
Carey has seen shy and reclusive soldiers come out of their shells during the training with the dogs.
“Dogs do not let you get away with anything, so if you’re on the periphery they’re going to come engage with you and kind of force that interaction upon you. And seeing the transformation of a soldier remain on a periphery to leading the group is just is more than heart-warming — it’s really inspiring,” she says.
Sgt. Cory Doane, Sgt. Rex Tharp and Army Specialist Seth Pack, all with the 10th Mountain Division, out of Ft. Drum, N.Y., are in the WTB Service Dog Training Program.
Doane served in Afghanistan in 2011 when he was just 20 years old.
“In the Army, you’re always told that you’re invincible and when you find out you’re not invincible, it kind of takes you back a bit,” Doane says.
He quickly learned he is not invincible.
“I was walking along one day on a mission, and I saw it and turned around to tell my buddies to get back,” Doane says.
But it was too late.
It was an improvised explosive device (IED), and Doane was thrust to the ground by the blast. As a result, he lost his leg below the knee.
Along with the loss of his leg, Doane’s femur was fractured in six different places. He has 14 screws and a metal plate holding it all together. He says he couldn’t walk for about five months until he received his prosthetic leg.
“Not long after I got injured, I was in recovery stage, not doing a whole lot, and they wanted me out of my room so they told me I needed to do something. I was told my options and the dog program kind of interested me,” says Doane, explaining how he became involved in the WTB program.
Since the beginning of his involvement, there’s been no looking back.
“It’s helped me a lot because it got me out of my room and it got me to do something productive,” he says, adding that the recovery process is incredibly complex and life-changing.
“After you’re injured, it’s more than losing a leg or getting shot. You kind of lose like your perspective on life and then you kind of have to rebuild that, and I think this program was definitely helping me to kind of get out there and kind of rebuild who I was again.”
Sgt. Rex Tharp, 21, had a similar experience in Afghanistan.
“We were on a foot patrol and we had stopped. I actually took a knee on mine (IED) and once I got hit, it was several seconds later that my team leader actually stepped on another one coming to my aid,” Tharp says.
In the blast, he lost his right leg above the knee and muscle tissue in his left leg. He’s lost count, but says he’s had at least 10 surgeries on both legs.
Tharp has been in the WTB Service Dog Training Program for about eight months. He says he’s learned a lot about himself, and the dogs have helped him come out of his shell.
“They’ve taught me to be a lot more social, actually. You kind of get out of that hiding from people, you know, not wanting to talk to people and stuff like that, but they (dogs) kind of force you into it,” he explains.
Army Specialist Seth Pack joined the program after his injury that occurred in Afghanistan in the summer of 2011. He stepped on an IED pressure plate and lost his left leg below the knee, resulting in multiple fractures in his right leg and a pelvic fracture.
He says the program has helped him both physically and mentally.
“Just like these other guys will tell you, you’re secluded in your room a lot (after an injury),” says Pack, who adds that the program has made him a lot more social and that he’s made good friends with the other soldiers in the group.
“When I started, I was really unsure about it, I was really nervous about doing anything,” Pack says.
However, a few months after he began the program, he grew into it. Pack says it’s also rewarding knowing that the dogs he’s working with each day will one day help another wounded veteran, like him.
“That’s definitely something I think about all the time, is it’s actually something productive and helpful that I’m doing: helping these dogs who, in turn, will help somebody else down the line,” Pack says.
There are currently five dogs in the WTB Service Dog Training Program, including two lead service dogs — Justin, 7 years old, and Irvine, 8. Three other dogs who are also part of the group are training to become full-service mobility dogs, including Penny, Indy and Sam.
Penny is an exuberant 10-month-old golden retriever. She’s the “baby” of the group and has a lot of spunk, energy and likeability. She’s training with a pair of very smart black Labrador brothers, Indy and Sam, who are about 16 months old. The trainers joke that they are constantly competing against one another to succeed in the program.
All the dogs who enter the program are bred by a single owner. Since the standard is very high, some dogs may not make it through the 18-month program. The dogs must lack any anxiety-type issues, be non-aggressive and fight the urge to bark.
“The level of demand on these dogs is high, and the level of demand on the soldiers that train is very high, and I think that kind of breeds and cycles a level of responsibility and accountability in this program,” says Carey, the program’s rehabilitation manager.
That doesn’t mean there is no room for mistakes along the way.
“The dogs are still young and definitely hitting that point in their maturity where they test limits, get excited and have a mind of their own sometimes, but they’re definitely steady trainers and on the path of success,” Carey says.
Irvine and Justin are calm and obdedient golden retrievers. They teach the younger dogs the ropes.
“The lead trainers and the lead service dogs will go first, demonstrating new commands, new routines and new tasks so the other dogs who are learning get to learn observationally and see the dogs being successful,” Carey says.
There are three main service dog training instructors in the program: Carolyn Ford, Ann Spader and Heidi Bonorato, the lead trainer. These instructors work with the dogs each day on a variety of skills, mainly out of Walter Reed and Fort Belvoir.
Ford, Spader and Bonorato practice with the dogs using toys to simulate tasks, such as pulling open the refrigerator, pushing elevator buttons, bracing a soldier up and down the stairs, retrieving dropped items, opening up cabinets and pulling wheelchairs.
The lead service dog and trainer usually go first to demonstrate a skill to the younger dogs.
“The other dogs are actually watching very intently, watching what the lead trainers will do … and get excited … and when it comes their turn, they’re almost bubbling over in excitement to be able to try something that the other dogs were successful in doing,” Carey says.
The lead trainer also engages the soldiers training with the dogs on a regular basis. A key part of the training is allowing the soldiers to make decisions on which dog should go next strategically. This forces the soldiers to engage in the training and helps improve their social skills.
Commands to the dogs are kept short.
“Look, get it, bring it here, give,” is one of the series of commands taught at a lesson. It teaches the dogs to get and retrieve an item.
The dogs don’t always want to give up the toy, but it’s imperative they bring the item directly to the trainer since in the real world, the wounded veteran may not have the ability to reach for an item.
The dogs get and retrieve an item from on top of a table, then do the same underneath the table. They are then commanded to pull a dog toy that one of the trainers is holding. This simulates the motion of pulling open a fridge or a cabinet.
Then the dogs approach a trainer holding what looks like a big, round button, and are told to “touch” it with their noses. This simulates touching an elevator button. At the same time, they are tempted by the trainer holding the tug toy in their other hand. They must have the discipline to leave the dangling toy alone.
The trainers don’t give up easily. They work with each dog until every task is achieved. There is no shortage of patience and in the end, praise.
At the end of the training, the dogs are commanded to a “down” position. Trainers then tempt them with squeak toys and treats, and the dogs must remain in the down position.
Even though Penny’s ears are on full alert and some of the dogs look interested and tempted, the dogs remain in the down position.
The dogs are in this rigorous training program until they are 2 years old. If they succeed, they will be paired with a wounded veteran somewhere in the U.S.
Dogs that don’t quite meet all of the requirements to become a full-service mobility dog may become therapy dogs. It will be their job to cheer up wounded warriors inside the local hospitals.
Since 1999, more than 500 wounded, ill and injured service members have participated and contributed to training the dogs.
“Emotionally, it’s just something to do that makes you feel good,” says Pack. “It’s always great to be around the dogs, it brings a certain joy to you every day.”
Watch two videos of the WTB service dogs train at Walter Reed.