Dog therapy for veterans injured in mind and body

  • Matt Moores, a retired Marine sergeant, with his service dog, James, at the Warrior Canine Connection.

    Matt Moores, a retired Marine sergeant, with his service dog, James, at the Warrior Canine Connection. Photo by Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post

 
 
Posted10/22/2016 7:30 AM

Ryan Garrison's service dog wouldn't stop bugging him.

At a dinner outing with his wife, Julie, at Fleming's Steakhouse in Baltimore, Garrison was growing nervous, clenching his hands. Being in public spaces had been a problem for the veteran since his return from Iraq, where he fractured two disks in his spine escaping a grenade blast in 2007.

 

On that March night at the restaurant, his English black Labrador, Luke, nudged him.

"What's wrong?" wondered Garrison, 39, who retired from the Air Force in June as a staff sergeant. Normally reserved on these outings, Luke sprang up between Garrison's legs and looked him in the eye, "like, 'Hey, look at me.' "

"All of a sudden, my light bulb goes off, like 'Hey, my leg's bouncing. I'm having an anxiety attack,'" Garrison said, recalling how his new companion eased his nerves.

Garrison and his wife recently joined dozens at a graduation ceremony for Luke and nine other pooches, service dogs who went through a rigorous, two-year training regimen to serve as companions for veterans overcoming the stress of combat. Warrior Canine Connection uses dogs to help wounded veterans reconnect with daily life.

Volunteers train the puppies from when they are eight to 10 weeks old until they reach age 2, when they go to live with veterans.

After being paired with Luke in March, Garrison -- who recently received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder -- saw a marked drop in the anxiety attacks that had been a twice-a-week affair. Now, he said, he's more confident venturing out, going to restaurants and buying groceries.

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"When I take Luke out now, all my focus is on him, making sure he's not smelling something, making sure he's not bothering anybody," Garrison said. "In return, he knows my anxiety cues."

Julie Garrison broke into tears as she described Luke's impact. The stress of combat and chronic pain had led to bouts of "blind rage" in her husband, she said, but Luke had all but erased them.

Her husband's "dry wit that I fell in love with six years ago has returned, thankfully," she said. "It's just joyful now. Because of that soft presence of Luke."

Robert Koffman, a physician and retired Navy captain who is Warrior Canine Connection's chief medical adviser, praised canine therapy as "a means of coaxing emotion back into the warrior's soul forever robbed by combat of its naiveté, and whenever possible whispering a whistle of childhood and innocence back into the hearts and minds and the souls of our wounded veterans."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Dogs are good medicine," he added.

Rick Yount, the WCC's executive director, marveled at "the amazing healing power of the human-animal bond."

Retired Marine Sgt. Matt Moores described the pairing in a different way: "It means everything."

Moores suffered a broken back and brain trauma in 2013 on his second deployment to Afghanistan -- career-ending injuries, he learned on his return.

"I was in a really bad place," said Moores, 32, of Germantown, Maryland. "Being with my men, training them, living with them -- you know, there's a real special bond, and it was something that I felt like was taken from me. That was going to be the rest of my life. When I lost it, I felt like I had lost everything."

But meeting his golden retriever, James, now 2, changed his outlook, he said. He gained the confidence to interact with psychiatrists and medical staff, and had a tail-wagging companion in life.

"It made me feel like I had a purpose," he said. "It made me feel like I have something that I'm good at and that is doing good. And those are the two things I was missing in my life. To have that back is the best medicine."

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