Canine Assisted Therapy Helps Soldiers Heal, Recover

Louisville Red Cross, Canine Assisted Therapy Helps Soldiers Heal Photo
With the dogs, you can feel awful, and then you work with them and they take away the pain.

During his 33 years of military service, Senior Non-Commissioned Officer Tim Goad deployed three times—once during the Gulf War and twice during Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was during his second deployment in 2005 that Tim sustained his first injury.

While escorting a convoy, Goad’s Humvee was hit by an IED (improvised explosive device). He escaped with his life, but was left with ringing ears and a headache that lasted two weeks. His left shoulder was also injured. His ears endured too much damage for doctors to mend, but he was eventually able to get hearing aids to help with hearing loss.

“I didn’t want to talk about it at first,” Goad said of his injuries. “I went through a period of fighting it, masking it.”

The thought of being viewed as weak kept Goad from seeking further help for his brain injury, PTSD, depression and anxiety. He was prescribed anti-depressants, but felt unsupported and unable to trust people. Meanwhile, his memory and cognitive abilities began to deteriorate. He had a hard time remembering detailed discussions and struggled with organizing and multi-tasking, two things that used to be easy for him.

“I used to be quick, now I’m slow,” Goad said. “I get agitated with myself. I ask myself, ‘Why can’t I do this anymore?’”

In November of 2012, Goad’s friend recommended visiting the Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Clinic at Ireland Army Community Hospital in Fort Knox. Tim started regular treatments at the TBI clinic in May and was referred to the Fort Knox Canine Assisted Therapy (CAT) program by Occupational Therapist Maureen O’Brien.

CAT is an 8-10 week program developed through collaboration between the American Red Cross, occupational therapists from Ireland Army Community Hospital and volunteers. The program was created to foster the healing and recovery process of soldiers diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries, post-concussive syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Following an initial meet and greet for soldiers, dogs and dog owners, occupational therapists determine the best fit based on interaction and the areas soldiers need to work on such as socialization, concentration, execution of motor skills and more. Soldiers meet with the dogs once a week to learn Canine Good Citizen commands which will eventually be put to practice in an American Kennel Club-style rally obedience course.

Goad has completed the first level of training and is now in the rally phase. Running through the course with his pooch partners, he is able to exercise his memory and problem solving. Hans, a German shorthaired pointer, is perfect for testing Goad’s assertiveness.

“If you give [Hans] an inch, he’ll take a mile,” said Hans’ owner Jeff Pitcher. Hans demonstrated this while walking through the rally course with Goad. As they approached the first command station, Hans hesitated, as expected. When Goad repeated the command, Hans fell onto his back for a belly rub.

“I’m soft hearted and he knows,” Goad said. But Goad doesn’t mind being played. “With the dogs, you can feel awful, and then you work with them and they take away the pain.”

He also feels more comfortable opening up around fellow participants because they are struggling with similar issues and can relate. Master Sergeant Gerald Schroeder is coping with PTSD, anxiety, and depression as well as mood swings. His symptoms are usually triggered by conflict, stress and crowds.

“At work I think my mind knows there are repercussions,” Schroeder said. “At home, I let my feelings show more.”

Better managing his mood at home is a goal for Schroeder who has moved to the second level of the program. When he first started, he was anxious, but by the fourth week, that had changed. A contributing factor to his improvement is an Irish wolfhound who goes by the name Delilah. Tempered and affectionate, Delilah’s calm demeanor helped relax Schroeder around the unfamiliar people and environment.

“Being with the dogs is very relaxing and very calming,” Schroeder said. “They help bring down stress levels and anxiety. It also helps with my depression because when I get with Delilah, she just makes me happy.”

Like Hans, Delilah has been with the program since its 2011 launch. She has extensive experience as a pet therapy dog because she acts as one each and every day. Her owner Jackie Ryan is an Army veteran who endured her own injury which called for partial foot amputation. Delilah and an English Mastiff named Robot serve as crutches for Ryan. At the perfect height, the two dogs can support Ryan who trained the dogs to walk at her slower pace.

“When I knew what the program was for, I joined,” Ryan said. “I knew if it worked for me, it could work for other soldiers.”

Both Schroeder and Goad expressed thanks to the therapists and volunteers who manage the program. More than 40 soldiers have gone through the first level. Most get their medical board and move to the next level. Others will join again to make more progress before moving on.

“There was a time I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was lost,” Goad said. “I know I’ll never be 100 percent, but now I know there are coping skills.”

Each dog and owner has completed Red Cross Fort Knox Pet Therapy Certification. Certification is modeled after Therapy Dogs International tests covering a variety of areas to train dogs in the skills and obedience necessary to participate in the program. For more information on CAT or other Red Cross Pet Therapy programs call (502) 624-2163.