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At first, Marine Sgt. Jon Gordon didn't exactly jump at the chance to learn to train a service dog. When he returned from Afghanistan, where he was injured driving over roadside bombs, he said, "I was where my head hurt so bad that I didn't want to do anything. I stayed in my room — I didn't like talking to people — I didn't go out."
Then Gordon met Birdie, a Labrador Retriever from Warrior Canine Connection, a nonprofit that teaches veterans with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress to train service dogs for other veterans — and everything changed.
The idea behind WCC is that training dogs is healing for the trainers. The first step in the process is socializing the puppies, getting them out and about so they'll become accustomed to daily life. That's also a first step for a veteran like Gordon, who was isolating himself. When he started working with Birdie, he found that the dog made it easier to interact with people.
"Having a dog with you, it's kind of like a safe buffer when people come up and talk to you," says Gordon. "It's 'Oh, you've got a cute dog, what does it do?' not 'What are your injuries, what's wrong with you?'"
But human contact isn't the only part of the process that's valuable for the trainers. A service dog must learn to be comfortable around crowds and calm in the face of unexpected loud noises — which can also be difficult for someone who's been injured in battle.
"Startling events or loud noises are often triggers for the veterans we work with," says Rick Yount, executive director of WCC. "To teach the dog that a car backfiring is a good thing, you have to challenge your own automatic distorted thinking that it's maybe an IED. To teach the dog that the world is safe, you have to sort of convince yourself of that."
Yount first created a service-dog training therapy program called Paws for Purple Hearts as part of his master's thesis work in 2008. Since 2010 he's been working with veterans in the PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury research and treatment center at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda, Md. In 2011 he joined WCC, where he continues to focus on that work.
Yount says that one very basic principle of training turns out to be part of the healing process: To effectively praise a dog, you've got to sound like you mean it. This is therapeutic for soldiers suffering from the emotional numbness that comes with post-traumatic stress.
"You have to at least pretend to sound happy," says Yount. "Having service members who are emotionally numb doing that, it really kind of pulls affect out of them."
Learning to use that happy tone of voice is hard for most people the first time they take a dog training class, but it's even more of a challenge for these injured vets. What inspires them to try, Yount believes, is the fact that they're helping other veterans. "That core value system of taking care of your own is a very powerful motivator."
Another goal of WCC is to conduct brain science research to get hard data on how interacting with and training dogs affects people with brain injury and PTSD. One of their planned projects will examine sleep problems, another common symptom experienced by the veterans in the program.
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