Service dogs can be excellent companions for veterans with both physical and psychological wounds. One organization has taken the concept a step further with a pay-it-forward approach. At Warrior Canine Connection, veterans are helping themselves heal by training service dogs, and helping other veterans by providing these dogs to those who need them most.
Rick Yount, the executive director of Maryland-based Warrior Canine Connection, has been working in the field of social services for over 30 years. On Christmas of 1995, he was gifted a golden retriever puppy. At the time, he was working with children in the foster care system.
One morning as Yount was heading out to work, the puppy looked into his eyes and guilted him into taking him along. When he arrived at work, he received a call from Child Protective Services informing him that there was an 11-year-old boy who needed to be picked up from his mother’s house.
“When we arrived at this home neither one of us had met this young man, and we were there to take him from his mom and put him in a foster home in another county. So he was going to live with a family he had never met in another county, and that in itself was extremely traumatizing to this boy. He was immediately sobbing. He thought his world was falling apart,” Yount recalled.
While Yount was driving the boy to the foster home, the sobs faded away into silence. He looked in his rearview mirror and saw his four-month-old golden retriever with his head in the boy’s lap. In that moment he saw the comfort the puppy was able to provide that he had been unable to give. It was this experience that motivated him to incorporate animal-assisted therapy into his work, and over time, Yount discovered how powerfully effective animal-assisted therapy would become.
Yount has always been inspired by the warrior ethos and the brotherhood that exists between veterans and thought that if he could combine the power of the human-dog connection with this warrior ethos, it would be highly effective in the healing process for veterans struggling with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and PTSD.
“Frankly, I didn’t think that anyone would take it more to heart in training service dogs for veterans than fellow veterans,” Yount said.
After developing the idea through a pilot program at the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs hospital in 2008 called Paws for Purple Hearts, Yount founded Warrior Canine Connection in 2011.
At Warrior Canine Connection, veterans who are contending with TBI and PTSD have to motivate the dog to learn the tasks required to become a service dog. Training a service dog also requires patience, which helps veterans regulate their emotions. However, in order to do that, veterans have to develop a bond with the dog.
Incidentally, there is a biological component that suggests the relationship between humans and social animals such as dogs can be beneficial for veterans dealing with PTSD and TBI.
According to Megan Daley Olmert, the director of research at Warrior Canine Connection, who has worked in the field of the biology of the human-animal bond for over 30 years, oxytocin plays a crucial role in social bonding and brain function.
“We now know when you look at your dog, when you talk to your dog in a high-pitched, positive way, when you pet your dog, when you brush your dog, when you are involved in a loving and social way with your dog, you’re releasing oxytocin,” Olmert explained.
The training process starts with basic commands and teaching the dog to be fun to be around. The more advanced tasks that the veterans train the dogs to do include retrieving items, turning on lights, opening doors, helping people up and down the stairs, and pulling wheelchairs. The veterans also train the dogs to respond to stress cues such as nightmares.
Furthermore, veterans develop communication skills while training the dogs. They learn how to command a dog in an authoritative voice, followed by a praising tone once the command is completed.
“That veteran who is dealing with emotional numbness all of a sudden has to use positive affect to be successful in carrying out this mission of training the dog,” Yount explained.
Training service dogs also requires taking them out in public, which helps veterans who are struggling with isolation. When a veteran takes a dog out to a public setting, people are going to come up and speak with the veteran about the dog.
“They discover after many, many encounters with strangers walking up to them that stranger does not equal danger. Really all those people want to do is talk about the dog,” Olmert said.
The veterans also teach the service dogs and themselves that the world is a safe place. For instance, the dog has to learn not to be scared by a loud noise, and in effect, the veteran becomes less apprehensive about loud sounds. A veteran who may have struggled with noises that sound like gunfire or explosions becomes less and less affected by them.
Training the dogs translates to the veterans’ home lives, as they learn patience, communication skills, and feel a sense of purpose.
“When they’re going home and they have a 13-year-old boy, and they’re trying to get [him] to take out the trash and [he doesn’t] do it right away, rather than becoming really upset, this patience they’ve been practicing with the dog helps them get into the timing of the family, just slowing down,” Yount said.
Once that boy takes out the trash, the veteran praises the child, just as he praises the service dog he’s been training, which creates an effective, positive reinforcement.
One of the veterans Yount has worked with was a Marine Corps drill instructor who was dealing with PTSD. One of his issues was that he was being too harsh with his 3-year-old son, and his wife had filed divorce papers as a result. However, the patience and praiseful voice he had been practicing with the service dog he was training helped him connect with his son and saved his marriage.
In another instance, Yount was using dog training as a model while teaching a parenting class. A Navy SEAL in the class stopped him while he was speaking, and told him how his father would knock him out of a tree with baseballs if he didn’t come down within two seconds. So when his father would tell him to come down from the tree, he learned to obey very quickly.
Just then a pin fell off the SEAL’s hat, and the service dog Yount had brought heard the pin drop. He asked the SEAL to hold his hand out, and without further instruction, the dog retrieved the pin and spit it into his palm.
“Do you think he did that because he’s afraid not to, or because he likes to retrieve?” Yount asked the SEAL. “Now my second question is, do you want your kids to do the right thing because they’re afraid not to when you’re around, or do you want them to do the right thing because it’s the right thing?” Through this demonstration, Yount was able to reach the SEAL.
Close to 5,000 veterans have participated in Warrior Canine Connection’s program, and 70 service dogs have been placed with veterans who need them. One veteran who has received a service dog is David Rabb, a retired United States Army colonel who did tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rabb contended with what is called a moral injury after suffering a stroke in 2015. He felt betrayed by the leadership in the military after they accused him of causing his own stroke, and as a result, developed significant trust issues, particularly within his own family. He also struggled—and continues to struggle—with hypervigilance as a result of post-traumatic stress.
In 2007, while working at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Palo Alto, he met Yount and found out about Paws for Purple Hearts. After Rabb returned from his deployment from Afghanistan, he reconnected with Yount and was able to receive a service dog named Gunny Quail from Warrior Canine Connection.
Gunny Quail has helped Rabb deal with his psychological wounds immensely. When he goes outside his home, the labrador makes him feel safe. If he starts feeling emotional, Gunny Quail can sense it and will give him a nudge, which helps Rabb regulate his feelings. For Rabb, the dog has been life-changing.
“Gunny is a stable force. He brings me peace. I’m at peace just looking at him,” Rabb said.