'Heroes' will be trained to help heal veterans

Gregory Stanek gives some attention to therapy dog Rusty while owner Sue Chappell sits with her other dog, Baron, Wednesday at the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City. Therapy dogs visit every Wednesday, but a new program called Heeling Heroes will establish resident service dogs-in-training at the clinics for the first time.Julia Moore

Five squirming puppies as cute as bug's ears are about to be deployed on a special mission with five veterans hand-picked for the job.

The pooches will be the first paws on the ground in the innovative Heeling Heroes program at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City.

In what is believed to be the first-ever such program in the VA, residential veterans at the SORCC will be raising and helping train homeless puppies from shelters to become psychiatric service dogs. The dogs will be trained to help outpatient veterans battling post traumatic stress disorder.

"Even though the program sounds warm and fuzzy, it has a mental health significance and component to it," stressed Dahna Dow Osmus, a lead case manager and mental health therapist at the SORCC who came up with the idea.

"We will be creating service dogs as well as emotional support dogs for outpatient veterans," she added. "We will be the first VA in the country to use shelter puppies trained by resident veterans to become service dogs for outpatient veterans."

The puppies are expected to arrive at the SORCC by mid-July. A trainer will be working with the yet-to-be-selected veterans before their furry charges arrive to prepare the vets for the opportunity and responsibility, Osmus said.

The puppies will have their own crate in which to snooze in the veterans' living quarters. Supplies to feed, groom, play, train and clean up after the little canines will be provided.

"For all of us who have raised puppies, we know that it requires delayed gratification, anger management, frustration tolerance, patience, collaboration, emotional stuff — all the things that veterans here struggle with," she said, adding that problem solving and clinical support will be provided.

The challenges reflect those faced by many veterans at the facility who have had tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, she noted.

"This will allow resident veterans to have the feeling of continuing to serve other veterans," she said. "And the puppies will receive obedience training and are pretty much guaranteed a home once their 10-month training is up."

Although there have been resident cats on the premises, it will be the first time dogs in training will be allowed in the facility established shortly after World War II, observed Rhonda Haney, a SORCC spokeswoman and Army veteran.

"I think it's going to be a good program," Haney said. "In the military, you immediately form a bond. I see the ones who become service dogs having that same bond you had in the service."

In addition to bonding with the veteran, the trained dog will have a specific mission, she added.

"Once they've trained to be that service dog, they are there to do a job," she said. "They are not there just to lick and be petted. It will be a nice outcome for the dog and the veteran fortunate to receive one."

A veteran dog owner, Osmus currently runs the dog therapy program at the SORCC. In that program, therapy dogs that are certified are brought in each Wednesday by their owners in the community to work with veterans.

In Heeling Heroes, the puppies will be supplied by county animal shelters in Jackson and Klamath counties in Oregon, and Siskiyou County in California, Osmus said.

"It's not so much breed specific as it is temperament specific," she explained. "The puppies will be temperament tested to make sure they are the caliber with the characteristics to become service dogs."

Service dogs can neither be too friendly nor too dominant, she said.

"There is a specific personality criteria to make an effective service dog," she said. "Only about 20 percent of the dogs make that criteria."

In addition to the five primary puppy handlers, five other resident veterans would be on standby as puppy sitters, she said.

"If the primary handler veteran had a medical appointment or something, the sitter would step in and substitute," she said. "After five months, the primary handlers would move on in their treatment program and the sitters would become the primary handlers."

All told, 15 veterans would be directly involved, since five more puppy sitters would replace those who moved up to the first line as handlers, she explained.

"Working with dogs brings out the humanity in us," said Osmus, whose father served in the Marine Corps. "A lot of times on the war front, you have to check your compassion and empathy at the door to make the decisions and do the task you are supposed to do."

After the initial training, the dogs would be trained as psychiatric service dogs.

"One of the key components is that we have veterans raising puppies for other veterans," she said. "That is an important cornerstone. As we watch the puppies grow and make developmental milestones, we will get a sense of which ones will make the criteria to go on to be service dogs."

The pooches that don't make the cut will be adopted by other veterans to become emotional support dogs, she said.

Those that become psychiatric service dogs will be placed with SORCC outpatient veterans who would benefit from the dog's presence, she said.

"We would prepare them to get ready for the dog to arrive in their home," she said. "We would have a trainer working with the veteran and the dog to make that pairing partnership."

The service dog then becomes the veteran's loyal buddy for life.

"It will help veterans reconnect emotionally," Osmus predicted.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.


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