Opening doors, turning on lights, helping remove socks and shoes – for the talented service dogs in training from the non-profit Warrior Canine Connection (WCC), these skills are just the tip of the 80-command iceberg that dogs master to assist the visible and invisible injuries of their veteran partners.
For veterans dealing with the symptoms of traumatic brain injuries (TBI), the invisible wounds of war can worsen feelings of isolation and being disconnected from friends and family. Here at CU Anschutz, the Marcus Institute for Brain Health (MIBH) on campus has a new partnership with the WCC, a national nonprofit where veterans training service dogs for other veterans aims to heal those wounds.
Training dogs, training people
Currently, five special dogs on campus work with veterans, retired elite athletes and adult civilians who are receiving treatment for mild to moderate TBI at the MIBH. Importantly, the MIBH philosophy is that discharge status should not be a barrier to receiving treatment for veterans.
‘Veterans can be reluctant to focus on themselves, so helping train service dogs for others is a way for them to indirectly work on their own goals.’ – Ann Spader
After a one-week assessment, patients embark on a three-week outpatient program that includes working with professional dog trainers to help train service dogs for other veterans with disabilities. Why is it important that veterans train service dogs for other veterans? Ann Spader, service dog training instructor for WCC, said, “Veterans can be reluctant to focus on themselves, so helping train service dogs for others is a way for them to indirectly work on their own goals.”
Like many person-to-person interactions, training dogs can require significant patience. As they learn to train, patients are required to work on skills like frustration tolerance, expressing positivity, praising and rewarding good behavior and holding focus on the dog instead of turning inward on themselves.
The canine cast
The first eight weeks of life for all of WCC’s dogs can be watched with the live Puppy Cam.
Because service dogs spend their lives working on behalf of their partners, golden and Labrador retrievers are purpose-bred in the WCC headquarters in Maryland to maximize traits of health, temperament and longevity.
Here in Colorado, five dogs are currently in training: two yellow labs named Joseph and Sully; a black lab named Nate; and two golden retrievers named Candace and Poyner. Dogs are named in honor of military servicemen and women who have made outstanding contributions and sacrifices for their country. The CU Anschutz dogs join approximately 70 other service dogs being trained in facilities nation-wide.
Each dog works with up to 60 veterans during their two-year training. Much of this training is focused on mobility commands which include helping with balance support and learning to pull wheelchairs for short distances in case of emergency. WCC dogs also identify and interrupt physical stress cues such as a bouncing leg by nudging a partner’s hand or jumping into their lap to decrease anxiety and stress and provide physical grounding. As service dogs accompany their partners in their daily lives, dogs even learn to control their need for bathroom breaks, fittingly designated as the “Better hurry!” command.
During the two years of training, volunteers from CU Anschutz known as ‘Puppy Parents’ help to reinforce the training and socialization during the dogs’ off duty hours. After completing the two years of training, dogs are matched with a veteran in a manner consistent with their own personalities. The pair undergoes an intensive two-week program designed to familiarize both dog and human to the details of their new partnership. The partnership created is celebrated at a graduation ceremony attended by each dog’s namesake or their family and the dogs are transferred into the care and service of their lifelong partners.
Love hormone, unleashed
Why are dogs so skilled at healing emotional wounds? A 2015 study in the journal Science provided some clues: mutual gazing was shown to increase blood levels of oxytocin, the love hormone, in both humans and dogs. This can promote attachment and bonding between dogs and owners. Other studies have shown that petting a dog can lower blood pressure and slow heart rate. Also, dogs are also great listeners; patients have told Spader that talking to the dogs is easier than talking to people, because they don’t feel like they’re being judged.
Service dogs vs. ‘dogs who want to be served’
Not every dog is meant to be a service dog, Spader said. “Instead of being born to serve, some dogs want to be served,” she laughed. Dogs that are too social or attention-loving to maintain the necessary level of focus on their partner choose a different career path since being a service dog is not the only option for these talented canines. For example, some dogs provide comfort as therapy dogs at veterans’ care facilities, hospitals, and court rooms. Other dogs serve as military family support dogs, where they help heal the rifts within families.
How to get involved
WCC is supported entirely through grants and donations. With the two years of intensive training and care, each dog is estimated to be worth $35,000. Yet, the dog is provided to a veteran at no cost.
There are many ways to get involved. WCC at CU Anschutz is always on the lookout for Puppy Parents or Puppy Sitters. If you are interested in volunteering you can find more information here. Patrons can also donate to the WCC directly or visit WCC’s Amazon wishlist.
When it comes to veterans helping other veterans, Spader said that WCC’s mission-based trauma recovery model relies on the warrior ethos; leave no man behind. She added, “It’s a no-fail mission. The dogs have to be trained, they need to be socialized, because they have such important work to do.”
Guest contributor: Shawna Matthews, a CU Anschutz postdoc