That dogs make great therapy animals for physically or emotionally disabled veterans is not new. Using the actual dog training as emotional boot camp for recovering war-fighters? That’s a whole different thing.
But that’s exactly what the folks at Warrior Canine Connection are doing. The end game is permanently placing highly trained service animals with disabled vets. Before that comes two years of puppy training prior to the dogs start their lifetime gigs.
And instead of only helping their forever human, the dogs are used to retrain every person they come in contact with even as those people are, technically, the human trainers. The result is a completely symbiotic relationship with veterans that has the dogs working as healers from birth.
“There are really two forces at work here,” said Rick Youst, WCC’s executive director. “One is the power of the puppies – the healing power of this animal. And the other is this warrior ethos and compelling value of taking care your own.”
Here’s how it works: starting almost immediately, the puppies are exposed to as many people as possible through visitors and puppy-petters. When training time comes, rather than placing the future service dogs with a traditional traier, Warrior Canine Connection almost exclusively uses as trainers veterans recovering from PTSD at a handful of DoD and Veterans Affairs centers like Walter Reed. Those veterans, many of whom have never trained dogs before, are responsible for using positive reinforcement for training, forcing a positive emotional connection for a group of people who often complain about feeling emotionally numb. And when the dog’s two year training period is over, he goes to his permanent placement with a disabled veteran.
The result? A group of war-fighters who have been trained through the military to be emotionally distant are retrained to emotionally connect while working to ultimately help another veteran.
“To be able to normalize it we say ‘hey the Army put you through a lot of training before you went into war. You were trained very well just consider this more training,’” Youst said. “It’s experiential retraining and the dogs are the feedback system. They give you honest immediate feedback if you get it right or not.”
While any emotional retraining can be a huge key to recovering from PTSD, the most important part of their work is the impact training the puppies can have on military families, Yount said. The connection a veteran trainer has with a puppy is not unlike the one he needs to have with his children. But the emotional numbing and anger that often comes with PTSD can mean that veterans have a very difficult time giving positive feedback or having a healthy, positive emotional connection with their small children.
Yount believes working with a puppy can change all of that.
“When you train someone really, really well and effectively the way the military does, you can’t teach someone to transition to war-fighter to parent by having them sit through a lecture or read a manual,” he said. “The DoD training for war fighting is not good training for parenting.”
But training a puppy requires veterans to use tone of voice and exaggerated enthusiasm to communicate praise, what Yount calls a “Richard Simmons voice.”
“Training one of these puppies in two years to become a service dog really does mirror effective parenting skills,” he said. “You have to have a bond, you have to regulate your emotions and most importantly you have to use as much genuine as possible positive emotion for reinforcement for that message you’re trying to communicate.”
WCC is currently participating in two scientific studies to put the clinical evidence behind the puppy training success that they have seen. One study looks at biological markers to measure the impact contact with a dog has on their stress hormone levels. A second study is looking at the scientific efficacy of canine therapy.
Even if you aren’t a veteran suffering from PTSD the puppies can have a calming force. That’s because WCC has a puppy live feed through Explorer.org where you (and me, obsessively I admit) can watch the puppies doing their adorable thing. I dare you to not have a slightly better day after watching these guys for a few minutes.
While the waiting list for a WCC service dog is really long, military families and veterans can still get involved in WCC’s work by spreading the word, donating or even becoming a puppy tender at WCC’s Maryland facility.
“We really do rely on people that sometimes come for the puppies and stay for the mission,” Youst said.