Stressed troops in Iraq will get a first-of-its-kind holiday gift later this month: two long-eared, highly sensitive black Labrador retrievers that military officials hope will help soldiers navigate the ragged emotions of life in a war zone.
The specially selected and trained therapy dogs, Boe (pronounced Bo) and Budge, will be attached to combat stress units in Tikrit and Mosul, where "they’ll be a vital part of the medical team" that helps troops struggling with stress, sleep disorders and event-related trauma, says Army Staff Sgt. Mike Calaway. He’s one of two occupational-therapy assistants sent stateside to receive therapy-dog-handling instruction and return Boe and Budge to the 85th Medical Detachment combat-stress control unit.
This is the first time the military has placed therapy dogs in a combat zone, so it is unknown precisely to what degree troops will connect with and benefit from them. "We have a blank page," says Staff Sgt. Jack Greene. "We’re writing on the page. We don’t know what’s going to be at the bottom of the page until we get there."
But at a minimum, the dogs "will be able to serve as an icebreaker and a communication link" between troubled troops and care providers, says Mike Sargeant, chief training officer for the non-profit America’s VetDogs. Sergeant began preparing the 2-year-old Labs earlier this year after the Army queried whether the psychological benefits that therapy dogs provide stateside troops could be replicated in Iraq.
Jumping to the challenge
Therapy dogs offer affection without regard to "gender, race, disability or injury," says Sargeant, and in many settings, troubled people have come to regard the animal as "a safe haven of communication" and have opened up in ways they have not with humans. It’s "too new to know just how far the magic will go" in a combat environment, he says, but he’s convinced the two dogs are ideally suited to the challenge.
Boe and Budge are similar to each other in their affection for people and ability to tune into individuals’ emotional states, but they have their own distinct personalities, Sargeant says. Boe is a stocky female with a playful nature who will cheerfully spend hours at someone’s feet if that’s what is asked, and Budge is a spunky male who’s hard-wired to please.
Unlike guide or service dogs, therapy dogs aren’t trained to alert people to ringing phones, maneuver them up or down stairs or pick up dropped items. Therapy dogs are trained to plug into humans and to be "completely non-judgmental," says Sargeant; that often prompts people to expose their vulnerabilities, uncap emotions and move past their difficulties.
Therapy dogs routinely undergo six to eight months of special training to ensure that, among other things, they’ll keep their focus on people, no matter the distractions. Boe and Budge were put through additional paces to prepare for the sights, sounds and scents of a war zone. They’ve been acclimated to helicopter noise, explosions, gunfire, sirens and people from many cultures.
Also, most therapy dogs, which generally work with frail or ailing adults and children in hospitals, nursing homes, medical offices and other care facilities, are typically chosen for being "extremely soft with very low energy levels," Sargeant says, so they’ll be content with prolonged inactivity. But knowing that the Army canines would be working very long days with people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who might benefit from some play or roughhousing with a dog, Sargeant wanted high-sensitivity dogs with great energy, and Budge and Boe qualified.
Both dogs know that when their therapy-dog jackets are put on, "they’re on duty," Sargeant says. And no hurled tennis ball can cause them to lose their focus on people in their sphere. But when they’re not working, they happily engage in raucous merrymaking.
The two dogs, born and trained on Long Island, N.Y., have spent 24 hours a day with their new handlers since Sunday, says Jeff Bressler, America’s VetDogs executive vice president, and the four of them have undergone at least 10 hours of training with Sargeant every day since.
Four-footed foot soldiers
Boe and Budge will fly to Fort Hood in Texas this weekend, where they’ll undergo military physicals with Army veterinarians and be commissioned as Army sergeants. Next week they’ll board a military charter plane to Kuwait (they’ll fly in the cabin, not in crates beneath the plane) and from there journey to their respective units. Although travel in Iraq is not always direct or precisely on schedule, they’re expected to reach their destinations by Christmas or soon after.
Sending therapy graduates into a war zone thousands of miles away is sweetened by the knowledge that "we know they’re going on a very important mission," Bressler says.
"I know what they can give back to people," Sargeant says. "I’m going to be proud."
Budge and Boe "will be in areas that are kept safe," he says.
When the dogs’ tour in Iraq ends — possibly years from now — they’ll likely be deployed with the handlers they have at that time to a new locale or reassigned to a military hospital in the USA.
Via: USA Today