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WASHINGTON, July 26, 2006 – Man’s best friend is about to become every military amputee’s best friend, thanks to the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind and a new pilot program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here.
For the past 60 years, the Guide Dog Foundation has provided service dogs free of charge to help people with visual impairments become more mobile and independent. But less well known is the group’s work with service dogs for people with other disabilities.
Mike Sergeant, chief training officer for the organization, said he’s excited about the potential of a pilot program that will enable amputees at Walter Reed to get their own service dog, without cost. The dogs are trained to help the troops balance as they learn to walk with artificial limbs, to retrieve items the servicemembers drop, and in some cases, to serve as braces as the troops lift themselves from a chair or the floor, Sergeant explained. "The service dog will help the Veterans as they learn a new way of mobility with their artificial limbs," he said.
While helping Veterans overcome physical barriers, the dogs will help them overcome emotional ones, too, Sergeant said. "They will serve as a companion dog to help during the veteran’s transition," he said. "We’ve been told that a lot of Veterans are proud of what they have done, but that there’s an awkwardness about adjusting" to life outside the hospital. When a dog accompanies a wounded veteran, the public’s focus automatically goes to the dog, not to the wound or disability, Sergeant said.
"A service dog is a great living tool," he said. "It can make life a little easier as they adjust to their civilian life or career. The veteran and dog act together as one, so the veteran is less dependent on human assistance and becomes more independent.
"Plus, there’s the benefit of love and companionship that a dog provides," he added. "The two work kind of like the buddy system, going through the transition together."
Dogs used for the program, mostly retrievers, go through a rigorous three- to four-month training program that instills the skills and discipline required for the job. "We need a dog that’s disciplined and rock-steady," he said.
Sergeant said he’s hopeful the program can kick off at Walter Reed as soon as October. If the pilot program proves successful, it may expand to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, he said.
His hope is that the pilot program will be an overwhelming success and that "any amputee who is interested will be able to apply to take a service dog home to help with his transition."
Harvey Naranjo, sports and activities coordinator in Walter Reed’s Occupational Therapy Amputee Section, has lined up three patients interested in trying out service dogs.
Among them is Eddie Wright, a 30-year-old Marine sergeant who was medically retired after losing both arms in Fallujah, Iraq, in April 2004. "I think it’s awesome," Wright said of the opportunity, though he quickly volunteered to Sergeant that he wouldn’t accept a service dog if it could go to someone who needed it more than he did.
Sergeant assured Wright his group will work to ensure it generates enough donations to provide a trained service dog to any veteran who needs one. "If you want one, we are going to work with you to provide you a fully trained dog," he said. "And we will teach you how to work with it so that when you do home, this dog will be of real assistance in your life."
Wright said he’s hopeful about the new capabilities a service dog will bring him. "It will help me be more independent and more comfortable on my own," he said. "I hate to be dependent."
Naranjo is a big fan of service dogs. He introduced Deuce, a year-and-a-half-old chocolate Labrador retriever, to the Walter Reed staff in March after seeing how well patients responded to dogs during their therapy.
"He’s a big welcome mat who opens up the door to communication wherever he goes," Naranjo said of Deuce. "I see these service dogs as real ambassadors. They can provide a huge service and therapeutic outlet."