JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — Trained in explosives detection, narcotics detection and more, military working dogs here are now assisting in a different type of fight: the fight to rehabilitate patients at the Air Force Theater Hospital.
Members of the AFTH medical staff here held the first session of the K-9 Visitation Program, May 15, a program that works to further patient recovery after injury or illness through animal-assisted therapy.
The "pet project" of Staff Sgt. Janice Shipman, 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group intensive care unit aerospace medical technician, the program brings members of the 332nd Expeditionary Security Forces Group's K-9 unit and the medical staff together with one goal in mind: patient recovery.
"We are working together to make [the patients] feel good about themselves and about healing," said Sergeant Shipman, who is deployed here from Travis Air Force Base, Calif.
"From my experience, with their injuries, [patients] focus on that so much that just being able to have a distraction even for a little bit helps them heal," continued the Phenix City, Ala., native. "Seeing brings us good memories, touching brings up good memories as well. If [patients] feel good about themselves and their environment, they can say, 'hey, I'm included with this' and they are not just thinking, 'I'm a patient in a bed.' It's therapeutic."
An AFTH patient, Army Staff Sgt. Vannell Baerrien said his experience with the K-9s has made a difference in his healing process.
"Being here with the dog has helped me relax a lot more," he said. "It has helped me to be able to take a deep breath and exhale so to speak. This has been a wonderful and welcomed event."
Army Sgt. Marc Dowd, also a wounded warrior at the AFTH, shared common feelings regarding the K-9 Visitation Program: "[The program] gave me a chance to get out. Being able to get out here, especially with a working dog, is a great environment to be in. It helped me out. It made me forget about the pain just to have the dog around. It was really nice."
The use of animals for therapeutic purposes goes as far back as 1699 when the English philosopher John Locke suggested the importance of children interacting with animals. The U.S. military began pushing for the use of therapy dogs in 1919 after success with World War I Soldiers.
Today, therapy dogs fall under the category of animal assisted therapy. While MWDs here are not specifically trained as therapy dogs, the program here serves to augment their given military duties as explosives-detection and narcotic s-detection dogs, in addition to serving as therapy to wounded servicemembers.
Overall, the program gives K-9 handlers a great chance to train their dogs to work closely with others besides the handlers, said Tech. Sgt. Joseph Throgmorton, 332nd ESFG kennel-master.
"These are military working dogs; when they are on duty on-base, we generally do not let people pet them," said Sergeant Throgmorton, who is deployed here from Hill AFB, Utah. "However, we have a unique mission here. Our dogs are working with non-K-9 handlers in close quarters of vehicles off-base and need to become comfortable around others."
The program has done just that for Staff Sgt. Kristen Smith, 332nd ESFG K-9 handler, and her explosives detection MWD, Cezar.
"Whenever you're training the dog around Coalition forces, you want to make sure he's not aggressing on people you don't want him to aggress on," Sergeant Smith said. "This [program] furthers that training because when we are riding in HMMWVs and we are out patrolling, we try to train them [MWD] on how they are going to act around Coalition forces so they're only going to do [aggress someone] whenever he [MWD] feels threatened, his handler is threatened or when given the actual command."
Sergeant Smith and Cezar were one of two K-9 teams to participate in the initial session of the program. The other was Staff Sgt. Charles Busha, and his narcotics detector dog, Golf, deployed herefrom Fairchild AFB, Wash., and a native of Lake Jackson, Texas.
Scheduled to be held at the AFTH twice a month at a minimum depending on the K-9 unit's operations tempo, the visitation program will be available to other 332nd ESFG K-9 handlers and their MWDs. Sergeant Smith said she was happy to have participated in the first session and hopes to continue participating.
"If the patients want to see Cezar, I will bring him over," she said, who is deployed here from McGuire AFB, N.J. "I think this is a really good program. It furthers our training and helps the patients.
Furthermore, the native of Johnstown, Pa., said participating in this program has helped her see the fruits of their training.
"[Being a part of this program] boosted my confidence that the training we are doing is paying off," she said. "Cezar is already good around people, but any additional training is always good for the dog.
"[Cezar] is an explosives detection dog; we're always conducting training to make sure he recognizes all odors so when you're out patrolling, he can pick up an odor from far away and he'll respond to it to let you know and to let fellow Soldiers know that there's something out there," she added. "They are all well-trained animals and as long as their handler's around and they ask the handler's permission, they are approachable and their purpose can be that of a therapy dog as well."
In addition to helping patients in their recovery process and the K-9s in their training, Sergeant Shipman said she hopes the program will serve yet another purpose: educate both the medical staff and the security forces members about each other's missions. Following patient interaction with the K-9s, the medical staff is able to view a K-9 demonstration, showcasing some of their [MWD] daily training.
"I hope this will give people a new understanding about what the K-9 unit does and help in bringing us together," she said. "The K-9 unit will see what we do as a medical staff, and us as a medical staff will see what they do. They save lives just like we do. We will work together with the common goal to heal our patients."
This work, Air Force Theater Hospital 'unleashes' new recovery program for patients, by SSgt Dilia Ayala, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.