Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury staff members admire Lundy, a service dog, as his owner Jake Young, a former Navy SEAL, looks on. (Image courtesy of the DCoE)
When an occupational therapist at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) asked Jake Young to train a service dog as a form of therapy, the former Navy SEAL wasn’t exactly sold on the idea.
“My first impression was they were just trying to pacify me,” said Young. “I’ve got a dog at home. I wanted more brain games and speech therapy.”
On the other hand, Young, at NICoE receiving treatment for a serious traumatic brain injury, knew his recovery from an explosion that occurred on his 12th deployment wasn’t going well. Despite his best efforts, his cognitive skills were declining.
“I had issues with headaches, reading and math,” said Young, who spent 23 months in the hospital. “I did all the standard physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy. One thing would get better and something else would drop off.”
Accustomed to succeeding at whatever he puts his mind to, Young was discouraged.
“I was extremely angry and frustrated. I went from working national-level missions to not being able to finish a complete sentence. My wife was ready to institutionalize me.”
A No-Fail Mission
When the SEAL was told he would train the dog for a disabled fellow service member, however, he got with the program.
“Now it is a no-fail mission,” Young said. “I’m not going to mess this dog up for maybe a double amputee. I’m going to do everything I can.”
At first Young had trouble even remembering the dog’s name, Lundy, from one day to the next, but dog training ultimately proved a turning point. As he kept at it, Young realized his memory was improving. The headaches were getting better too, and his medication was reduced from 18 doses a day to four. His physical and mental strength grew as he worked with Lundy.
It’s not clear why training the dog helped Young with his cognitive issues. Typically, dog therapy is prescribed for service members who have psychological issues such as posttraumatic stress disorder, which often co-occurs with TBI, said Navy Capt. (Dr.) Robert Koffman, senior consultant for integrative medicine and behavioral health at NICoE.
“If this becomes a proven evidence-based treatment, as we believe it will ultimately be, that is going to open the door in such an incredible way for a number of people who have mental health issues,” Koffman said.
Dog training therapy might be helpful for other anxiety disorders in addition to PTSD, he said. The therapy model is not about providing each injured service member with a dog, Koffman said. Rather, “Training the dog, interacting with the dog and being with the dog is therapy.” NICoE uses a four-week training model.
Saving a Marriage
Young, who had PTSD as well as TBI, said training helped him with PTSD too. As he learned to control Lundy and taught the dog to be calm in various situations and interactions with people, he transferred those accomplishments to himself. His wife and five kids were excited to see his progress, he said. Young credits the dog-training program with saving his marriage and his relationship with his kids.
NICoE works with Warrior Canine Connection, one of a number of nonprofit organizations that supply trained dogs free of charge to wounded service members. Service dogs have been in training at Warrior transition units at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where NICoE is located, since 2008. They are now also at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. More than 3,500 service members have participated in the training therapy program during a seven-year period.
Rick Yount, Warrior Canine Connection founder, piloted the program at the Department of Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System, in California, 10 years ago with three active-duty service members who had PTSD. At first the men rejected his method, which requires trainers to speak commands in a low tone but deliver praise in a higher-pitched, almost squeaky voice.
“How can macho men with PTSD be expected to sound happy with a dog?” Yount asked. But, warfighters with PTSD may be emotionally numb and need to relearn basic social tools like voice modulation, he explained.
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