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Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 3

At military and veterans' hospitals around the country, dogs are increasingly part of the cure

All Animals magazine, November/December 2010

  • The greatest benefit of Venuto's companionship "is the bond and what he does for me emotionally," says veteran Bill Smith, "because I'm able to handle things better with my family." View a PDF of this story here. David Paul Morris

  • At a Nevada pet supply and grooming store where Christopher Hill buys treats for Verde, the service dog demonstrates his money-handling skills. Danny Moloshok

  • Through Washington Humane Society's Dog Tags program, director of animal behavior and training Kevin Simpson helps veterans train shelter dogs for new homes. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

  • "We have millions of shelter dogs dying to be in service," says dog trainer Tamar Geller, whose Operation Heroe & Hounds teaches wounded and traumatized vets the skills to act as trainers for homeless dogs. Sharon Cavanagh

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    "I just mentally picked up that somebody's watching my back," says Hill of Verde's role in his healing. Danny Moloshok

Dogs are now regular visitors at military and veterans’ hospitals around the country, St. Laurent says. Some are even accompanying combat stress control teams to Iraq and Afghanistan. At Walter Reed, dogs play multiple roles, sometimes visiting with soldiers and their families, sometimes accompanying a veteran who’s learning to walk with a prosthetic limb. The center also hosts the second location of the Paws for Purple Hearts program, and provides a third form of canine interaction: Soldiers in the occupational therapy program can opt to study dog behavior through the Washington Humane Society’s Dog Tags program, helping rambunctious shelter dogs develop manners that will make it easier for them to find homes.

Dogs have a calming effect, says St. Laurent. Walter Reed can be a stressful place—and not just due to the grievous injuries patients have suffered. Family members and patients may be seeing each other for the first time in many months, says St. Laurent, and emotions can run high. “We have broken people, patients that are dealing with what’s going on in their heads from their war experience,” he says. “And then all of a sudden, you have a dog running around the formation. It kind of normalizes the environment.”

Specialist Leif Meisinger, who has memory problems due to the traumatic brain injury he suffered from an IED blast in Iraq, came back to the States attuned to people’s movements, alert to any facial expressions that might indicate hostile intent. In public spaces, he was jumpy, watching strangers’ hands for weapons and studying rooftops for the presence of snipers. He started staying at home, drinking too much, avoiding the outside world.

That began to change when he visited the booth of Pets for Vets at a Veterans Day function. Founded by Clarissa Black, the organization places shelter animals in homes with veterans.

Meisinger was interested, but he had a special request stemming from his PTSD-related anxieties.“He really wanted a dog, but he was afraid that having the hair around the house was going to exacerbate his issues,” says Black.

That might have stopped the conversation, but Black combed area shelters and eventually found Spyder, a Mexican hairless. The dog has become a major part of Meisinger’s life, forcing him out of the house and into a healthier routine. And the dog seems to sense when Meisinger is feeling low. “He comes running up and he’s just playing and pushing on me ...” Meisinger says. “You can’t do anything but start playing. ... I don’t even realize it till I’m already out of it; it’s like I forgot I was in that bad place.”

Like other vets, Meisinger has noticed that having an animal has helped him relate to his family, especially his 8-year-old son. When he returned from combat, the boy found him a little scary. “I was very irritated and very militant,” he says. The dog has given them something to bond over; they play together with Spyder, and Meisinger’s learning to be softer. “He’s brought me and my son together, which to me is probably the greatest thing that’s happened.”

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