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November 10, 2010

Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 6

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

Seeing the dogs learn helps instill a sense of self-worth in the trainers, many of whom are struggling to cope with new limitations, with disfigurement or scarring—with a sense that they’re different from the people they once were. Geller recalls a veteran who had survived a sniper bullet in the face telling her that he was “a useless, broken piece of machinery. ”Seeing the dogs learn helps instill a sense of self-worth in the trainers, many of whom are struggling to cope with new limitations, with disfigurement or scarring—with a sense that they’re different from the people they once were. Geller recalls a veteran who had survived a sniper bullet in the face telling her that he was “a useless, broken piece of machinery.”

It’s that kind of anguish that she wants to help fix. For all its potential peril, Geller says, life in the military provides things often missing in the civilian world: camaraderie and a focus on specific goals. Training dogs supplies these positive elements, making reintegration easier.

Retired specialist Brian Moody says he’s seen the mentality of fellow veterans change as they work with dogs in the Washington Humane Society’s Dog Tags program. Soldiers who’ve had amputations, for example, learn they can still be successful at the work. And no matter how bad Moody himself feels, the chance to bring a timid dog out of her shell or teach her something new provides a sense of accomplishment.

Yount, Geller, and others would like to see the canine assistance programs for veterans expanded. Dogs’ capacity to help has not been fully explored, and Yount regularly encounters the catch-22 of scientific evidence: “It’s hard to get funding for a program that doesn’t have a lot of scientific research behind it, but it’s hard to get research without having a program where it can be conducted.”

Canine programs may soon get more scientific support: In May, the House passed H.R. 3885, a bill directing the U.S.Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct a pilot program that would examine the effectiveness of treating veterans suffering from PTSD by letting them help train service dogs for their disabled comrades. (Currently, the bill contains language that would exclude dogs who are not specifically bred for the work—including shelter dogs—and The HSUS’s Government Affairs staff is working with Tamar Geller to get that element changed.) More information may come from a study underway at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, where researchers in the occupational therapy program are examining the effects of animal-assisted therapy on soldiers’ moods and transitions to civilian life. Results are expected within the next few months.

But nobody needs to show Christopher Hill the data; he has his own.

“The pharmaceutical companies don’t want to hear from me,” says Hill, who—like many of the service members who’ve worked with animals—has been able to reduce his medications and wean himself off several of them after working as a trainer and then getting his own service dog, Verde. “They would be out of business if these programs were expanded.”

For Hill, participating in the dog training program marked a fundamental shift in his long recovery process.

Even at the National Center for PTSD—a place where sleep disorders are a dime a dozen—Hill’s ongoing insomnia was legendary at the nurses’ station. Every morning brought the same accounting as they recorded the sleep habits of their patients: Patient X slept through the night. Patient Y slept through the night. Patient Z slept through the night. Christopher did not sleep.

In combat, Hill says,“having somebody by your side with a weapon who’s watching your back in a really stressful situation is a great comfort. Well, when you leave that environment, that person is no longer there. You’re on your own.… It’s like you can’t sleep because you [feel like you] have to be up standing your post. And you can’t sleep on your post; that’s endangering everybody’s lives.”

It’s a state of mind, he says, that would likely have taken him years to gradually ease away from. But the first night he had Verde in his room, when a nurse checked to see if Hill was sleeping, the dog let out a tiny growl. To Verde, Hill says, the nurse’s stealthy approach seemed sneaky, and he was letting her know it wasn’t a good idea to sneak up on his buddy.

It wasn’t even conscious, Hill says, but “once he did that, I was like, ‘Hey!’ I just mentally picked up that somebody’s watching my back.”

The result was immediate and dramatic. Within the next few days, four doctors had gathered outside of Hill’s room, all puzzling over the new development, wondering what magical medicine could have caused this astonishing notation in the nurses’ log: Chris slept.

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» view a pdf of the full article  

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