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November 10, 2010

Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 4

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 Heroes & Hounds teaches wounded and traumatized vets the skills to act as trainers for homeless dogs. Sharon Cavanagh

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

“It is like somebody’s on some very powerful medication,” says Rick Yount, who founded Paws for Purple Hearts as a program of Bergin University of Canine Studies and has watched dogs plow right through the social walls put up by PTSD sufferers.

Yount recalls an angry Marine at the center in Palo Alto—“I think it was 13 different IEDs he’d been hit by”—sitting in a corner and not participating. One of the program’s golden retrievers walked up and nudged the Marine’s leg, to no avail: The man turned away. “And the dog walked around to the other side, like ‘How about this side?’ And the guy kept trying to discourage any more interactions. … And the dog finally got up on his lap,” Yount recalls, laughing. “And this guy smiled; this Marine cracked a smile.”

Dogs may lack the faculty of speech, opposable thumbs, and an understanding of human preferences regarding toilet habits. But they often seem to exceed the capacity of humans to withhold judgment— and to forgive.

“Can you imagine if you went up to this Marine and tried to shake his hand and he kind of shook his head and didn’t acknowledge you—would you try the other hand?” Yount says. “Would you give him a peck on his cheek?”

To describe dogs as walking prescriptions may seem fanciful to some. But studies have repeatedly shown that the human-animal bond is more than sentimental whimsy. Recently much research has centered on a hormone called oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that helps female mammals give birth and nurse their young; it’s now being examined for its role in social bonding, empathy, and anxiety reduction.

Several studies have indicated that friendly contact between humans and animals elevates the flow of oxytocin—one 2008 study in Japan showed that mere eye contact between dogs and owners could inspire an increase. Those limpid “puppy dog eyes,” it seems, don’t just help a dog wheedle more treats; they actually make people feel better and more open to affection and trust.

Dogs have proven their therapeutic value even to some who aren’t wild about them—“Sorry,” says Lt. Col.Matthew St. Laurent, half-amused, half-defiant in his apology for not adoring the canine species. But although he doesn’t idolize dogs, the assistant chief of occupational therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is a believer in the difference they can make. “I’m a therapist,” he says,“and I’m open to any way to help our patients get better.”

It’s dogs’ responsiveness, St. Laurent says, that makes them good partners in healing psychological wounds.“We have patients that are depressed, we have patients that are irritated or angry, or they may have disfigurement or other major problems. But the dog doesn't care, and the dog shows affection, and the dog listens to them.”

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