Barking Up the Right Tree: Pairing Men of War, Dogs of Peace
Throughout history, dogs have been man’s best friend. If the man is a soldier, a dog can save his life in combat.
For the soldier who suffers physical and psychological wounds, a dog can lift depression, calm anxiety and coax a smile.
“I was in a down mood,” says Staff Sgt, Jeffrey Graham, returning from nine months in Afghanistan. “They told me that being with the dogs would relieve my stress.”
This happens twice a week at Dog Tags of Moore County, when servicemen and women from the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Bragg are bused to the Southern Pines VFW. Here, in an informal setting, soldiers socialize and obedience-train rescue dogs supplied by Animal Advocates of Moore County (AAMC). With this training on their Facebook resumes, the dogs, now in foster homes, easily find permanent placement.
As for the soldiers, body language does the talking.
“His name is Larry but we call him Crazy,” says Sgt. Matt Godwin of the frisky brindle boxer mix leaping on a leash. Godwin served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Injuries acquired “down range” affected his motor control, even after surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Previously, Godwin worked with explosive-detecting canines.
“My best friend was a Rottweiler — he loved me when I’m fat and he loved me when I’m thin,” Godwin says. “I can’t do my duty in the military anymore. Maybe the way to get back is to train dogs.”
Fort Bragg maintains a kennel on base for relinquished pets.
Job skills, although not the primary purpose, might add a third benefit to this win-win effort. “Crazy” Larry, in his second week of training, is already showing progress, says Barbara Shepherd, director of AAMC.
The 90-minute classes, which began in March, are more relaxed than professional obedience programs. Part lecture, part paws-on, the goal is to assess needs, build trust, teach leash manners and basic commands to dogs destined to become better-behaved family members.
Love comes first. Dogs are rewarded with treats, praise, even hugs. Black Lab Bud had serious doubts. His scratched face and droopy tail spoke of harsh treatment. Initially he resisted the leash. But after an hour, his tail stood at attention as he puppy-wrestled a spunky terrier watched over by 25-year veteran Sgt. 1st Class Anupong Sae-tiew, who attends with his 3-year-old granddaughter Shyann Owens.
“I just like having her with me as much as possible,” says Sae-tiew, who served in Iraq. “It makes me feel better.” Plus, this gives dogs the opportunity to interact with a child.
Chalk up win number four.
Creating Dog Tags required a complex battle plan initiated by Mary Jo Morris, chairman of the Moore County Animal Control Ordinance Revision Committee. Morris read a newspaper story about a similar program which paired one puppy with one soldier for the duration. The pair developed a relationship over several months. But the model did not quite fit local circumstances, Morris thought. Random pairing might.
“I believed that the growing numbers of returning soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and adoptable, homeless dogs crowding our shelters could be paired up to help each other,” Morris says. She discovered how the Washington, D.C., Humane Society cooperated with Walter Reed Army Medical Center on pair-ups. When Walter Reed closed, the effort ended, leaving no written protocol to guide Morris.
Undeterred, Morris collected information from animal organizations, formulated a plan which she presented to AAMC and Moore County Animal Control. Non-profit AAMC agreed to accept donations, if needed.
Then Morris contacted the Patriot Foundation, which offers a variety of support services to servicemen and women at Fort Bragg. Lt. Col. Tom Schumacher Jr., commander of the Warrior Transition Battalion, was drafted into action.
“I had some reservations about logistics,” Schumacher says. “You have to give the right soldiers the opportunity — make sure they are not in a situation where they will fail.”
Frank Ringelberg, breeder, trainer and Moore County Animal Control officer, offered to administer the classroom component. The VFW Post donated its bingo room. Professional trainer/groomer Karen Moyer volunteered to instruct soldiers in obedience techniques. Barbara Shepherd of AAMC selects and transports the dogs in a comfortable van.
Because of donated services, Dog Tags operated with little or no expense, Morris says.
She hopes the program, once established, will be moved to and administered by Fort Bragg. Similar foster/obedience programs have been successful in correctional facilities. Hospitals and hospices recognize the positive contribution of certified therapy dogs.
The Buddy System
With Schumacher’s permission, the idea was presented to 400 soldiers on active duty, returning to active duty or transitioning out. Recommendations and screening were required for soldier-volunteers. Dog Tags started with 22 soldiers and nine dogs, all now adopted. Some soldiers lost interest and dropped out. Organizers surmise that attendance might have been better if classes were held on the base — and if the soldiers were allowed to adopt a dog. “But I know we really made a difference to at least three soldiers,” Ringelberg says.
Ringelberg recalls a participant who sat toying with his cellphone during the first few classes. Then the puppies arrived. Who could resist? That very soldier was the most successful in relating to their needs.
For Sgt. Ruby Hendrickson, working with a Jack Russell terrier is the first step to a better life.
“Jack’s my buddy,” she says. “Each class, I teach him a different trick. He recognizes me when I come in the room.” Hendrickson has served in active and reserve duty for 33 years. She was injured in Iraq, choppered to a field hospital, then to Germany, then stateside. Injuries left her with hearing loss and panic attacks. Soon, the Army will provide a certified service dog trained at a cost of approximately $10,000.
“I love animals,” Hendrickson says. “Dogs make me feel calm, safe. They make me happy, tire me out. Maybe helping these dogs will help me work with my own service dog.”
On Wednesday evening, nine soldiers were presented with certificates of completion. Bud and Crazy-no-more Larry lay quietly on the cool tile floor of the VFW. Since last week’s class, Jack has been adopted.
However, no piece of paper captures the emotion. Sgt. Jose Diaz rose to tell of leaving only to attend his mother’s funeral. “I struggled a bit but I was determined to come back and finish.” Hendrickson added. “Now we can return to our communities and help at shelters. If we all pull together, fewer animals will be abandoned. And, we can pursue it as a business or a hobby.”
Ringelberg spoke for the animals: “These dogs have not been handled, socialized or loved. They’re in shock. Everything’s new. Then they begin to respond to games, commands and food. Soon, you can tell they are happy (as though saying to themselves) ‘I’m not a bad dog. I’m a good dog.’”
The feeling is mutual.
“I’m not so calm with people but I’m calm here,” says SFC Andrew Perrin. After 30 years of service, injuries have curtailed Perrin’s mobility. “I’ve gotten (student-dog) Molly to where she’ll stay close to me. There’s a lot of things I can’t do, but I can still do this.”
Spc. Otys Smith adds: “When I leave here I feel hopeful, like I’ve accomplished something, maybe to help get a dog adopted.”
Morris, fighting tears, concluded the ceremony with, “You stuck it out. You are special. I hope we meet again.”
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org
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