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Around The Fleet

Making the Connection

Warrior Canine Connection Pairs Support Dogs and Wounded Service Members

With a new generation of warriors returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, the military is investing many resources into medical research to care for wounded warriors.

Traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress are just a few of the war wounds service members are bringing home with them. What medical professionals have discovered is one of the most effective treatment options comes from an uncommon practitioner; a short fuzzy guy named Ron, who doesn't say a whole lot.

Ron is a trained facilities dog, who got his start at with the Warrior Canine Connection. He works with Capt. Robert Koffman, a Navy psychologist, in keeping morale high at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Koffman said that most behavioral health patients aren't always eager to seek treatment and Ron helps get them in the door.

"I've always had dogs and I've always been a dog lover," said Koffman. "But as a therapist, I've realized that there is still a stigma associated with seeing mental health or behavioral health [counselors], and it was just a natural fit for me to have a puppy. Having a dog is a great way to overcome that stigma."

Ron, a 2-year-old Golden Retriever, makes his rounds through the building and mingles with the staff and patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He has a knack for making friends where ever he goes. When it's time to work, Ron is on hand for appointments to make patients comfortable, lend an ear or even fetch a tissue.

Ron is one of many canines who get their start as puppies with the Warrior Canine Connection. The WCC was founded in 2011 with the mission of breeding Labrador and Golden Retrievers to become therapy dogs. These breeds are chosen because of their reputation for having an even temperament.

Most therapy dogs provide not only moral support, but also open doors, retrieve objects and can even pull wheelchairs.

Much of each dog's training is facilitated by wounded warriors, which ultimately becomes part of their therapy. The Navy's surgeon general, Vice Adm. Matthew Nathan said that this is the key to the program's success.

"[The wounded warriors] heal along the way," said Nathan. "And that's all they want is to get back [to feeling normal]. If you talk to anybody who's been damaged visibly or invisibly, they just want their lives back. And boy, what a way you can find it sometimes in the most unlikely places."

This training model works best because it charges service members with teaching the dogs the world is a safe place, and through that process the wounded warrior becomes convinced of the same.

Ron was bred to be a therapy dog, but his unique personality made that job difficult for him. He is described by those close to him as loving, but he often marches to the beat of his own drum. He knows many commands, but he doesn't always respond to them.
"He's actually quite a jester," said Koffman. "He's listening right now, but ordinarily he hates to be upstaged. In fact every time I'm at a podium he likes to grab the limelight."

Ron's attention-grabbing habits don't make him an ideal support dog because veterans with disabilities need a dog to be focused on them nearly all the time. But Ron's gregarious personality just happened to be a perfect fit for the duties of a facilities dog. He learned everything he knows from Marine Staff Sgt. John Gordon.

"Ron is very social dog," said Gordon. "He works well with kids and patients. He has this attitude about him where he's just so laid back and mellow; so easily approachable, which definitely helps people calm down and relax."

For most dogs, the training begins shortly after birth with socialization. The WCC begins socializing puppies by introducing them to human contact early and often. In fact, the Puppy Enrichment Center is always looking for volunteers to spend time with the dogs petting and playing. This interaction is designed to get the dogs comfortable around different people, smells and distractions before the real training begins.

After a few months, the puppies are adopted by their "puppy parents." Their parents are responsible for meeting the dog's day-to-day dietary and housing needs. The parents are also responsible for getting their puppy to one of the canine training centers where they get to work on different techniques with warrior trainers and be around other dogs. Some puppy-parents opt to train the dogs themselves, using the same techniques as the wounded warriors.

Former Hospital Corpsman Marshall Peters said the best part of working with the WCC is seeing the transformation that takes place within the wounded warriors as they develop the dogs.

"Seeing the transformation from when they get here on day one, they don't talk to you much and they don't make a lot of eye contact and some of them have a lot of high anxiety and things," said Peters. "By the fourth week, they're laughing and joking and hanging out with the dogs. In that short period of time a tremendous amount of healing goes on."

Once the dog completes their training and health screenings, usually at about 2 to 2 1/2 years old, they are placed with a wounded warrior to help navigate the obstacles of transitioning back into civilian life.

"The personalities have to gel pretty well between the dog and the human," said Peters. "They train together for about three weeks, and then they start their journey together."

Typically, most therapy and facility dogs work until they are between are 8 and 10 years of age, at which time they retire and live out their old age with their owner.

For more information about the Warrior Canine Connection, visit http://www.warriorcanineconnection.org or to watch the Puppy Cam, visit http://explore.org/#!/live-cams/player/service-puppy-cam.