Therapy dog helps troops deal with postwar stress

By Lolita C. Baldor

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, May 8 2014 6:44 a.m. MDT

"Stigma is one of the huge things the military is trying super hard to overcome — behavioral health stigma being the biggest one, I think. And Lexy is probably the biggest asset I have in overcoming that stigma," Rumayor said. "There's nothing better than coming to an appointment where you get to have a warm fuzzy thing that you get to pet all the time. People don't want to come in the door. When they see her coming in, it makes them want to come in the door."

And often the soldiers reward her.

On her vest, Lexy sports an Army Ranger tab and a spray of other badges and patches that she got from patients. The special forces tab came from a soldier who had been injured in a roadside bomb blast, and Lexy and Rumayor visited him in the hospital.

Navy Capt. Robert Koffman, the senior consultant for behavioral health at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda, has a therapy dog of his own, named Ron. And he's seen the broad impact the dogs can have.

Ron, a 3-year-old golden retriever/labrador mix, holds the rank of a one-star general and his designated military occupation is a "psych tech." He's even trained to bring tissues to distressed patients and put his head on a person's lap if he or she is stressed.

Lt. Col. Matthew St. Laurent, who is the occupational therapy chief at Walter Reed, said the use of dogs to aid therapy has been endorsed by U.S. Army Medical Command and appears to be getting more support across the military. Both he and Koffman said additional research is needed to determine how and when it is best to use the animals.

"It's tough for anybody to go to their mental health provider," said St. Laurent, who also runs the Therapeutic Service Dog Training Program. "But they need to see mental health providers and if you're introduced to the mental health community by a fluffy, loving canine, you'd be more inclined to come to the clinic and pet the dog. And one thing leads to another, and you're in the clinic."

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