Training Dogs Helps Wounded Vets

Wounded Iraq vets find comfort in dog training

By LINDA LOMBARDI 
For The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) – Rico the pit bull mix is bursting with adolescent energy when he’s led into a training center by Army Capt. Lawrence Minnis.

But as soon as Minnis reaches for a treat jar, the dog is focused on Minnis’ face, sitting before he’s asked.

Rico is learning to sit and walk on a leash, but the training isn’t just for Rico _ it’s for Capt. Minnis, too. He’s one of the first service members in rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to take a series of courses in dog training and behavior being offered to them by the Washington Humane Society.

The courses are designed to give a strong enough foundation for a future career with dogs, but that’s not the only benefit. Just spending time with animals is therapeutic, and helping others is even better. By giving the dogs a break from the shelter and teaching them behaviors that will make them more adoptable, the service members give something back, too.

The idea for the program began when Lisa LaFontaine, the Washington Humane Society’s president and CEO, arrived last August and heard that volunteer dog-walkers were bumping into soldiers from Walter Reed, which is just a few blocks up the street. The soldiers were drawn to the dogs, so LaFontaine saw the perfect opportunity.


Air Force Reserves Senior Airman Diane Lopes, 38, of Tampa, Fla., gives a treat to Rico, a pit bull mix, at the end of a dog training class in Washington, Thursday, July 31, 2008. Lopes, who was wounded while serving in Iraq in Sept. 2007, is involved in a dog training program for wounded soldiers at the Washington Humane Society. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

“One of my real beliefs in this work is that in addition to adopting animals out and protecting animals from cruelty, it’s important to have programs that bring people and animals together in meaningful ways,” she says.

There’s now a waiting list for the program, says Sara Meisinger, who oversees an occupational therapy placement program for returning service members in rehabilitation at Walter Reed. Her own certified therapy dog, Sky, is napping beneath the desk, and she understands the pull that dogs have on people.

“People are in my office all day when she’s here,” she says.

Training director Kevin Simpson, who teaches the course, says that the students’ enthusiasm is obvious _ they come early and stay late. Air Force Reserve Senior Airman Diane Lopes, 38, plans to volunteer with her local shelter when she returns home to Tampa, Fla.

Lopes, who was wounded in Kirkuk when a rocket blast launched from outside the base exploded behind her, says that just being with the dogs helps her.

“It has a calming effect. I look forward to coming here every week and seeing the dogs,” she says. “It keeps your mind off the crummy things in life.”

Lopes, a police officer in civilian life, plans to use her new skills on her Pomeranian, which she got shortly before being deployed. “I was bad because I knew I was being deployed, so I let him do anything he wanted,” she confesses. “This will be good for my dog.”

Although service members in rehabilitation typically take educational and internship opportunities offered by government agencies, Meisinger said the humane society program seemed like a perfect fit for Lopes and the other two service members currently enrolled.

A new group will start shortly. They can look forward to eight weeks of hands-on work with shelter dogs and the “regulars,” dogs belonging to shelter staff, who come along so the students can work with dogs who have varied levels of prior training. The course is no walk in the park _ it includes lectures on theory and behavior and a 60-item test at the end.

Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Foster, a 25-year-old from Wichita, Kan., calls the course “an awesome opportunity.” He enjoys feeling like he’s doing something for the dogs and the shelter: “Having us around is like having extra volunteers,” he says.

Foster, whose right leg was amputated below the knee, says he’d like to eventually work with special needs children.

“Children with special needs will be able to relate to me better than a person who’s whole,” he says. “They’ll see me and think, ‘He’s got only one leg and he did it.'”In the meantime Foster is interested in becoming a police officer _ possibly a K9 officer, using the experience he’s getting.

Foster especially enjoys spending time with Reese, one of the “regulars,” who reminds him of his dog that passed away recently. Lopes, the Pomeranian owner, is drawn to the little dogs, of course. And pit bull fan Minnis’ favorite is Rico.


U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Foster, 25, of Wichita, Kansas, left, and Air Force Reserves Senior Airman Diane Lopes, 38, of Tampa, Fla., walk Manny over an obstacle in Washington on Thursday July 31, 2008. Foster and Lopes, who were both wounded while serving in Iraq in Sept. 2007, are involved in a dog training program for wounded soldiers at the Washington Humane Society. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Minnis, a 27-year-old Washington native who’s recovering from an infection contracted while he was serving, says that working with a big, energetic dog like Rico is even physically therapeutic. Being able to react to Rico’s leash-pulling helps him see how much stronger he is now than when he was ill.

“It goes along with the therapy I’m doing _ it’s another challenge,” says Minnis.

Minnis is considering the possibility of opening a dog training school or other dog-related business. He says that training dogs reinforces what he’s learned about working with people.

“Being an officer in the Army, you have to be a leader,” he explains. “You have to do the same thing there _ motivate them, get them to do what they need to do and enjoy it.”

(Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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