Therapy Canine Companions in Combat

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Oscar, a rescue dog, was my first Therapy Dog when I worked at Tripler Army Medical Center's Human-Animal Bond Program. With all his scars, he was a favorite with soldiers.

Military Working dogs have a long and honorable history. One bomb detection dog can save thousands of lives. In addition to their role in combat, as Therapy Dogs, they can protect the soul. As canine companions in combat, they can bring a sense of well-being to service members.

Therapists who work with trained therapy animals find that service members will speak more if an animal is present. This is partly because animals provide stress-relief through de-arousal, as well as loving comfort. In December 2007, a program was initiated with specially trained Therapy Dogs who deployed to Iraq paired with Occupational Therapists in charge of Combat Operational Stress Response. "The intent of the program was to complement the job of therapists by using a highly skilled dog to achieve results. People would talk to the therapists twice as long if a dog was present. ” (US Army Medical Department Journal).

At the time, there was a huge stigma about reaching out for mental health support, so the presence of the dogs was critical in getting soldiers to open up about their feelings.

Canine Comrades in Combat

In 2007, as these specially trained dogs were deployed to war zones to assist occupational therapists, SFC Boe and SFC Budge were two of the dogs sent on early missions to Iraq. But it was quickly discovered that they were even more helpful than the Army had imagined. As Major Lorie Fike explains in the US Army Medical Department Journal:

"One of the most difficult coping aspects of deployment in a war zone is the fact that service members are away from family and loved ones during difficult and highly stressful times. The presence of a therapy dog in this situation offers our service members the ability to express and receive affection in an appropriate manner."

"On almost a daily basis, a visitor to these therapy dogs would state, "I just needed a hug from the therapy dog." Or "that is just what I needed!" upon receiving a sloppy kiss from the dog." Sometimes the small gesture of unconditional love from a dog can literally make all the difference in the world."

US Army Captain Brian T. Gregg was an occupational therapist assigned to the 125th Combat and Operational Stress Control Detachment. He was assigned a “four-legged furry battle buddy named Sergeant First Class Albert." SFC Albert would assist Gregg in many of his educational efforts, such as life skills training.

But CPT Gregg also found that having the deployed soldiers practice training Albert had many benefits for the soldier as well as the dog. It helped the soldiers develop various communication and leadership skills, such as cultivating an assertive tone of voice, using clear commands and specific body language. Communicating clearly to a dog requires tremendous precision and clarity. Dogs give instant feedback as to how clear you are in your communication."

In addition SFC Albert helped service members release energy and express feelings that they couldn’t share with another human being. "Many would show up for behavioral health classes because they knew they would get a chance to interact with the dog. Playing fetch with SFC Albert allowed them to “normalize” and feel their own humanity." These benefits made SFC Albert an invaluable member of the healing team.

As CPT Gregg explains, SFC Albert "…simultaneously operated as another outlet for the Soldiers to vent and cope with their stressful predicaments in a positively focused manner. It also assisted in fighting the negative stigma associated with seeking behavioral healthcare. The benefits of Albert's services could best be defined by the number of smiling faces that routinely greeted him.

In the context of combat, loving a vulnerable animal has many benefits. It keeps the sense of optimism and keeps the person connected to the joy of life. It is a great stress reliever!

"I highly recommend the use of Animal Assisted Therapy as a treatment modality for combat operational stress detachments... More importantly, I have learned that these furry friends have a benefit that transcends the relationship of a typical pet owner. Rather, it is likened to that of a comrade in arms, focused on conserving the fighting strength."

Sgt. Gabe- Canine Hero of War

A 1999 Newsweek story “Heroes of War,” tells of Canine Sgt. First Class Gabe, summarized here:

Sgt. FC Gabe is a yellow Labrador dog. He went out on more than 210 combat missions in Iraq and was a veteran with some 40 awards, including three Army Commendation Medals. Previously, he was rescued from a pound and ended up in Military Working Dog School at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Trained to sniff out explosives, weapons, and ammunition, Gabe was the most successful detection dog in Iraq for 2006-2007 and was named The American Humane Association's 2012 Hero Dog of the Year.

But as his handler Sgt. 1st Class Charles Shuck explains, the Army almost gave up on Gabe. "It almost never happened because Gabe was a dismal failure at the Military Working Dog School. He was just being a dog. He just didn't want to search, didn't want to find stuff." But Shuck kept working with him even though he didn't think he would pass the final evaluations, and Shuck thought he would never again see the dog he had fallen in love with. "When we got to the final evaluation, Gabe was on it. You'd think he knew that if he didn't perform, he was not going with me. Gabe actually performed like a rock star, whereas other highly trained dogs failed the final tests.”

Seventeen days later, in August 2006, Shuck and Gabe were on a plane to join the 178th Military Police Detachment. Gabe made 26 finds of IED’s and other weapons, saving countless lives. But Shuck discovered that Gabe had even more talents -- as a therapy dog. Gabe and Shuck began making the rounds to cheer up Soldiers in and around his unit.

"To me, dogs bring more than just their nose," Shuck said. "You have a dog that's trained to do a mission, to find bombs, to find bad guys, but then also, you're able to bring that sense of comfort and home to soldiers. They're able to touch Gabe and kiss Gabe and love Gabe, that's just an amazing feeling."

Shuck explains in the Newsweek story that: "Gabe was a docile dog, not a typical hyper lab, and not a tough, scary working dog, just a loveable, cuddly overgrown puppy. As soldiers were killed, if we were able to go over to the unit and just let their friends cry on Gabe's fur and just go and be with the (therapy) dog in that unit, we did that. On our way out of Iraq, we got to visit the combat hospitals and visit American Soldiers who were wounded, and just go in there and let them love up on Gabe for about two hours. It was amazing."

While not all military working dogs played the secondary role of therapy dogs, many did. Both for their owners, and for the unit as well. Having a dog around during down time helped soldiers unwind, relax, and reconnect with their hearts. These are critical resilience tools in stressful combat situations.

What Happens to Combat Dogs When They are Sent Home

The issue of what happens to dogs after deployment missions, however, is a serious one. Unfortunately, the military attitude has often been to see these dogs as weapons or property, not as living, loving sentient beings. They are often separated from the handler who was with him or her 24 hours a day for a couple of years. Sometimes with barely a glance, the dog is handed to a new handler, breaking the heart of the dog and the handler. Many of these dogs return with PTSD, and handlers who are separated from a dog who saved their lives multiple times, are often crushed to the bone.

In Vietnam in particular, the horrific habit of abandoning dogs who fought bravely and saved thousands of lives, was discussed in the Newsweek article “Heroes of War,” which stated "Most of the 4,000 German shepherd and Labradors that served the U.S. war effort in Vietnam as sentries, mine detectors and trackers were left behind as "surplus armaments." Now Vietnam vets and others have raised about $1 million for two statues honoring the dogs. "We came home; they didn't," says one vet. "They need a memorial."

Companion Dogs for Veterans with PTSD

Post Traumatic Stress is sometimes called an invisible wound. It can have life- crippling consequences for some, keeping them from going out in public, causing them to retreat from the normal activities of life. Having a companion animal provides tremendous support, and can help individuals with stress, anxiety, and panic attacks resume many of the things they were once able to enjoy.

Dogs trained for PTSD can help people sleep, can wake people from bad nightmares and can provide a sense of safety.

When you have PTSD, sometimes a dog can be not only your best friend, but maybe your only friend. Dogs don't judge, they don't demand you talk, and they can help people bring down their activation and calm their nerves. They can be a stable and loyal companion. And they can help people who are isolating get more connected with life. Having to take care of a dog's daily needs can help people be more disciplined and responsible. While it is not the right solution for everyone, and certainly not for anyone who has ever hurt an animal, but for many people having an animal companion can be a life-saving choice.

One organization, Paws and Stripes, started by veteran Jim Stanek in Albuquerque, New Mexico, trains dogs specifically to work with people with PTSD. This organization was featured in a Time magazine article, “Bringing Dogs to Heal.” Paws and Stripes dogs are trained in about ten PTSD-specific tasks. "Some of them are designed to ease concerns about blind spots, not unlike the way a military unit designates someone to watch troops' backs or to scout ahead." Stanek gives an example of the training where the dog can “Check around the corner to see what's in the next aisle at a store,” thereby reducing the anxiety of unexpected encounters.

While this formal training is excellent, a number of veterans have turned to animal shelters to find companion dogs. One example reported in this Time magazine article is the story of Staff Sergeant Brad Fasnacht, who suffered a broken spine in an IED blast. He found a one-year-old mixed breed Australian Cattle dog who he named Sapper.

Fasnacht, with two Purple Hearts, after three combat tours, was suffering from not only physical wounds but emotional ones as well. His PTSD left him in a state of hyper- vigilance that made him constantly scan his Silver Springs, Maryland streets and trees for snipers. War had made it difficult for him to face crowds and even individuals who got too close. "I'd just freak out, getting really uneasy," he said, "but not anymore." Thanks to his constant companion, Sapper, that calms his anxieties and keeps them from mushrooming into panic attacks, "Part bodyguard, part therapist, Sapper also serves as an extra set of eyes and ears. I've lost some of my hearing, but Sapper alerts me if someone is coming up behind me." And if Fasnacht is sleeping and having a nightmare, Sapper will wake him and soothe him by licking his face.

Dog Tags is the name of a program that is a partnership with the Washington Humane Society and The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) that is open to any enlisted service member using the WRNMMC. It is a three-tiered certificate program allowing recovering soldiers to learn and apply progressively complex and challenging elements of canine positive reinforcement training to dogs awaiting adoption at the shelter. Writing in the US Army Medical Department Journal about this program, Alers et al. comment that this program helps wounded soldiers to begin a process of restoring their identity after trauma and injury:

"To many wounded service members, the trauma of war has altered their sense of identity. Often it is the change in one’s ability to cope in life because of mental and cognitive difficulties, or altered body image from burns or the loss of limb(s). Whatever the reasons, something is lost – often the confidence in one’s capacity to serve and be productive given the new circumstances." It is the recognition of the desire of Wounded Warriors to serve, combined with the needs of shelter dogs that inspired the staff at the Washington Humane Society’s Behavior and Learning Center to develop a program called Dog Tags. (USAMDJ)

Programs like Dog Tags help service members find a new sense of purpose, thus supporting their new identity. This is critical in suicide prevention. It is commonly cited that a veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes. Clearly, there is a need for more effective prevention programs. Understanding that for service members, who may have had a 100% identity defined by their role in the military, to be separated from this role and identity is a significant element of the devastation they experience in returning to civilian life.

Dog Tags discovered that learning to rehabilitate and train shelter dogs provides a number of benefits, such as increased physical mobility, mental training, and the emotional skills of empathy, patience, and compassion. Working with dogs obviously is a very physical process, but teaching dogs manners also improves many mental abilities such as observational skills and timing. It often involves complex problem solving to work with an individual dog’s issues and find solutions to behavior issues. It requires tremendous patience from humans, as dogs learn at their own pace, not ours. It requires learning to cope with one’s own frustration when the dog has his or her own ideas. It demands control over one’s communication style, including tone of voice, gestures, and mood.

Dogs serve us in too many ways to even count. It is time we serve them and treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Genie Joseph, PhD

Director: The Human-Animal Connection


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