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.

How Training Dogs Retrains Veterans

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.

Changing Lives, One Dog at a Time

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.

"One marine, when I first stared this program, they tried eight different meds and he couldn't sleep," says Yount. "He would go three days without sleep, and he'd fight through the meds to avoid nightmares. The only thing that helped him sleep was the dog."

Sgt. Gordon had the same experience. Before meeting Birdie, he says, he'd go three or four days without sleeping, and was sleeping only four or five hours a week — not a situation conducive to healing. Birdie changed all that. "The first night he was there, I got like eight hours [sleep]," he says.

Gordon has also found that what he's learned working with dogs carries over into another important area of this life: He approaches parenting differently. Praise for good behavior is important to children as well as dogs, he says, as well as reacting to bad behavior in a low-key way. 

"When we give the dogs a correction, it's a simple 'nope,'" he says. Getting mad at the dogs doesn't help, and now he's realized that neither does getting mad at his daughter. A small thing like spilt milk used to make him angry, he says, but now "it's 'clean it up, no big deal, be more careful next time.' I don't personalize it."

He also tries to involve his daughter in Birdie's training, and says they've grown much closer and her grades and behavior in school have improved.

Taking Service to Another Level

The WCC dogs are trained for specific tasks like opening doors, picking up objects, pulling wheelchairs and carrying packages, but like the humans, they sometimes learn things that aren't explicitly on the syllabus. One of WCC's service dogs alerts when his person is about to pass out — which is not something that was part of the training. "Having such a tight bond, the dog picked up some on cues that we weren't picking up on," says Yount.

As for Birdie, he seems to think it's his job to help everyone around him. Gordon says the dog has a talent for picking out people who are depressed and isolated — exactly the ones who need him the most. One day in a waiting room, Gordon was talking with a small group, and one man was sitting in the corner by himself. The group wanted to pet the dog, so Gordon let him loose.

"He went straight for the guy in the corner," Gordon says. "The guy just kind of looked at him, then reached down and started petting him, and he jumped up in his lap. After that, the guy opened up and started getting in the conversation with everybody else."