work of dogs
News: Guest Posts
Being able to travel to amazing and interesting places is a real blessing in my life that I am grateful for every single day. I recently returned from a month in southern Africa… for me it was like returning home since I lived in South Africa for five years. My husband, Mike, is South African, and he works there most of the year, so my four year old daughter and I usually go at least once a year to see him and to see other family and friends.
This particular trip was not only to visit family though, I ended up spending about ten days visiting with other people and organizations who use “Conservation K9’s” for wildlife conservation. Wildlife is one of the greatest natural resources that Africa has, and tourism is a real economic boost as well as a good reason to protect the incredible diversity found there.
Take the cheetah, for example. Who doesn’t love cheetahs! They are gorgeous, athletic, and alluring creatures! But they are also in great danger. I was lucky enough to spend a week at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia, where I was able to spend time with cheetahs and the dogs that are helping them. The mission of CCF is stated as:
“To be the internationally recognized centre of excellence in the conservation of cheetahs and their ecosystems. CCF will work with all stakeholders to develop best practices in research, education, and land use to benefit all species, including people.”
In trying to accomplish this, CCF does many things. They rescue, raise, rehabilitate, and often release cheetahs when possible. The real importance of their work though is in trying to help local livestock farmers strike a harmonious balance with the cheetahs and other wildlife that share the habitat. One way they do this is by raising Livestock Guardian Dogs.
Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGD’s), such as the Anatolian Shepherds and Kangals that CCF breeds, are a very effective way to protect livestock where there are large predators. In Namibia, farmers can suffer losses from cheetahs and other large predators that still roam wild. CCF breeds these special dogs and gives them to farmers who need them so that cheetahs will not suffer the consequences.
I spent some time with a litter of four week old LGD puppies that were surrounded by CCF’s own herd of goats. The puppies are raised with livestock, and human attention and cuddling is minimized so that the dogs bond with the livestock rather than people. Once the dogs are ready they live full time with the herds they protect, and they love their job!
While at CCF I also got to meet four other special dogs, the cheetah scat detections dogs! These four dogs and their dedicated human team members spend their days in the field looking for cheetah scat, which is then processed by CCF’s in house genetics lab where so much information can be extracted from one sample. Cheetahs suffer from some genetic problems as a result of their declining populations, and the scat can also relay which individual it came from, what sex it is, stress levels, pregnancy, diet, etc.
These dogs can be very valuable because they speed up what can be a very time consuming process looking for a “needle in a haystack”, especially since cheetahs have such huge home ranges.
I had a great time at CCF meeting the dogs and many of the cheetahs that are non-releasable. Namibia is an amazing country, and I highly recommend it as a travel destination… and of course CCF is open to visitors and is an incredible experience!!
Towards the end of my Africa trip I traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa and attended a workshop dedicated to the use of detection dogs for wildlife conservation. It was here that I had the pleasure of meeting many wonderful people and dogs. I was finally able to meet two very special people in person that I had only conversed with via emails.
Rox Brummer from Green Dogs Conservation was a key participant in the workshop and had so much to share with all of us. Rox and her team are based in South Africa, and have done so much already with dogs including cheetah scat and kill detection as well as a bird control dog for an international airport in South Africa.
The other key speaker at the workshop was Megan Parker from Working Dogs for Conservation, based in Montana. Megan and her team have done much of the pioneering work using dogs for wildlife work. Their past projects span many continents and countries, and she had so much experience and wisdom to share with the group. I also got to meet one of Megan’s dogs, Pepin, a very handsome Belgian Malinois that has been trained to detect many different things in his working career.
This workshop proved an invaluable use of my time, as it was a very unique opportunity to pick the brains of several people who are the most knowledgeable and experienced in this unique field. I thank them all immensely for their time and dedication.
My trip was a success, both personally and professionally. Best of all I came home to happy and healthy dogs who had been so well cared for in my absence. There is no replacement for a great dog-sitter, and I have the best! Ranger was thrilled to see me again and ready to get to work. He is showing so much potential these days… I can’t wait for you to see him next month!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
No tools can do what she can
It really should come as no surprise that a dog can be trained to find bones. In fact, it’s hard to think of a job better suited to them. Yet, Migaloo the Black Lab is believed by her guardians to be the first dog who has been specifically trained to find buried human bones at archaeological sites. Trained cadaver dogs have previously discovered human bones that were nearly 200 years old, though they were not specifically trained to do so.
Migaloo was trained to alert to skeletal remains with the use of a 250-year old human skeleton on loan from a museum. It took six months of training, field trials and search tests to turn her into an archaeologist. Now Migaloo can do what no humans can do, even with the assistance of radar, magnetic technology and help from historical records. She can find ancient humans bones with high reliability due to their distinct odor. It’s unclear what that odor is and many people are surprised that there is a specific odor. Perhaps that’s why some people didn’t think dogs would succeed in this sort of work.
But Migaloo has succeeded, finding human bones over 600 years old that she was able to detect at a depth of two meters. Her job is to work at sacred Aboriginal sites in Australia finding skeletal remains. Her knowledge can be used either to find places to excavate or to find and protect burial sites. Perhaps soon there will be other dogs working at sites around the world at sites of ancient civilizations.
Migaloo is rewarded for her work not with a bone of her own, but with a game of fetch.
News: Guest Posts
It sure is HOT in Texas right now, and it’s not helping that Conservation Puppy-in-Training Ranger is on FIRE!! My little boy is growing up, and his potential is also growing in leaps and bounds. It is very important that our dogs are acclimated to the heat and humidity here in Texas, as it will be very useful later on when they are working in the field and make them less susceptible to heat related problems.
We take a lot of precautions to make sure our dogs are never at risk for heatstroke. Working during the heat of the day is nearly impossible for any length of time, so training right now is limited to mornings and evenings. Water is available at al times of course and here on the farm where Ranger is growing up there are several ponds that he is able to cool off in. We also started using these fantastic Swamp Coolers that Backcountry K9 generously donated to us (along with some life jackets!) which are nice to have on hand if necessary. The risks are very real for both people and animals, and all pet owners need to be extra careful right now.
Older animals do not tolerate the heat like their younger counterparts do, and in my household our oldest canine friend started going downhill these last few months. If you remember my very first blog, we lost one of our old Pointers, Kammo, in April, which left us with Purdy the geriatric Pointer-mix, Riley the Golden Retriever, Tank the Frenchie and of course, Ranger. Well, after saying for many years that Purdy was like the Energizer Bunny, she finally started to show her 15 years of age. She also developed a heart condition in the last month, and despite every effort to medicate, feed, and spoil, it was time for us to say goodbye to our Matriarch.
Many of you will sympathize with me and have had to say goodbye to a beloved animal or person. We knew we had only days left with Miss Purdy, and we tried to keep her comfortable and I took her on as many walks as her frail body could take. She always loved walking and swimming in the ponds, but more recently she started having problems swimming and had nearly drowned several times. By now she was content to just lie by the waters edge, her eyes having lost much of the sparkle they always had.
On Saturday morning we woke up and realized it was time to help Purdy cross the Rainbow Bridge. My husband, daughter and I all said our goodbyes, and I held her head and stroked her beautiful black fur while she fell asleep for the last time. It was probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do, but there was never any doubt that it was the right time.
Purdy was born in South Africa and spent her glory days chasing monkeys and antelope through the forests. Her ashes will be traveling with me to South Africa in September, where my husband plans to sprinkle them in the same forest she used to run in.
My trip to South Africa for the whole month of September will be full of adventures. I will be visiting the highly esteemed Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia to see their Livestock Guardian Dog Program as well as some new cheetah scat detection dogs they have just acquired! I also hope to visit with Green Dogs Conservation based in South Africa to meet their Livestock Guardian Dogs and Conservation K9’s that are being trained for so many valuable jobs related to Wildlife Conservation… plus they have PUPPIES right now.)
My next blog will be full of great photos and adventures from my Africa trip, and I cannot wait to tell you all about it. In the meantime, please take some time to “like” us and share this wonderful cause on Facebook or check out our Website… we appreciate everyone’s support so far, particularly our wonderful sponsors and donors. This was a great month for us and we got some great gear for the dogs.
EzyDog donated us some awesome harnesses that will be great for working the dogs in the field. We also had a beautiful commissioned portrait of Conservation K9 “Bea” donated to us by Melissa King from Pawblo Picasso (great name right!) that we plan on using for various fundraising efforts! You can see the painting and read Melissa’s blog HERE.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
An SAR call to action
In the wake of a disaster, the first critical task is to find survivors. To accomplish this, we turn to dogs for help. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, mudslides, terrorist attacks—search and rescue teams are on the spot and on the job until the last person is found.
The nonprofit National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) estimates that the nation needs more than 400 Advanced Certified canine search teams to adequately respond to disasters. But today, there are just 180 teams, and experienced pairs are retiring every year. To help narrow this gap, SDF has secured 122 acres in Santa Paula, Calif., on which it plans to build the first national training center of its kind in the country. Over the next three years, SDF plans to raise $15 million, which will be used to purchase the land, construct the facility and establish a maintenance endowment. The center will also allow SDF to consolidate its kennels, search-training sites and offices in one location.
Founded in 1995 by retired schoolteacher Wilma Melville, SDF’s mission is to “produce the most highly trained DHS/FEMA Advanced Certified canine disaster search teams in the nation.” To accomplish this mission, the organization accepts donations of dogs from individuals and rescues dogs from shelters, trains them, and partners them with firefighters and other first responders. Both the canines and the training are provided at no cost to the departments. Completing the loop, SDF also makes a commitment to the lifetime care of every dog it accepts into the program, regardless of whether or not the dog completes the training; once rescued, these dogs never need to be rescued again.
For more about their programs and to make a donation to this or another SDF project, visit their website or phone 888.459.4376.
News: Guest Posts
Without being able to drive, I’ve always thought that blind people and our guide dogs—especially those of us who live in big cities—must walk more than the average person-and-dog team does.
A new wellness program at my workplace gave me a chance to prove it. I work part time at Easter Seals Headquarters in downtown Chicago, and in June they started a six-week “Walk For U, Go The Extra Mile” challenge. Every employee received a free pedometer to keep track of our progress for six weeks, and those of us who met the daily goal of 7,000 steps per day—a distance of 3.5 miles—throughout the entire six weeks would be entered into a drawing to win a six-month fitness club membership.
The human resources department realized I wouldn’t be able to read the number of steps I’d taken each day on my own, so they ordered a special talking pedometer for me—it said my results out loud. And so, I was on my way to prove my theory.
The list of requirements for people applying to train with a Seeing Eye dog says candidates need to be able to walk one or two miles a day. When you live in a city you can’t simply open a sliding glass patio door to let your guide dog out. When my Seeing Eye dog Whitney (a two-year-old Golden Retriever/Labrador Retriever cross) needs to “empty,” I take her down the street, around the corner and to her favorite tree. That’s 1,000 steps per trip, and that trip takes place at least four times a day. And for the rest of the day, well, running errands in a city is like using one big treadmill. Add the safety shortcuts Whitney and I take across busy city streets (rather than deal with traffic, we go down the subway stairs on one side of busy streets, traverse underneath, then come up the stairs on the other side) well, every El station is a StairMaster.The first two weeks of our experiment included one week of 100-degree temperatures in Chicago. We stayed inside with our air conditioner on more than usual, but hey, a girls gotta go. Even in that hot weather Whitney and I averaged 9,871 steps a day, and our steps per day increased when temperatures cooled down the next week.
Just when I’d started planning which new equipment Whitney and I would try out when we won the free health club membership grand prize from the Go The Extra Mile challenge, I pressed the button to hear the number of steps I’d taken so far that day, and, nothing. My talking pedometer stopped talking. I shook the thing and pressed the button. Nothing. I turned it upside-down and rightside-up again. Nothing. I stuck it in a bag of rice for a day. Nothing.
And so, what happened with the challenge? Well, human resources offered to buy me a new talking pedometer, but I told them not to bother. I have a new theory now: blind people and our guide dogs—especially those of us who live in big cities—walk so many steps that a talking pedometer can’t keep up with us.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Disability not a deal breaker
I just finished watching Oscar Pistorius of South Africa qualify for the semifinals in the Olympics 400m race. Nicknamed the Blade Runner because of the shape of the prosthetic legs he wears for racing, Pistorius is the first double amputee to compete in the Olympic Games. He reminds us all that disabilities need not inhibit success and that the joy of having a purpose is not limited to the able-bodied.
Today must be my own personal “disabilities awareness day” because when I took a break from watching the Olympics, I read a story about Pirate the Papillon, a one-eyed dog who is in training to become a service dog. Though one of his eyes failed to open, his guardian recognized that he was special, and looked into the possibility of Pirate becoming a service dog. Pirate is in the initial phases of the process now, learning to be comfortable in all kinds of situations with a wide variety of people and being trained to do basic skills. Within the year, he will receive specific training, perhaps as a hearing dog or as an alert dog for someone with epilepsy or diabetes.
Pirate is so much more than a one-eyed dog. He is a dog with a lovely temperament who is going to make the life of his lucky human companion so much better and so much easier. I’ll bet that’s true of a great many dogs with a disability. Do you have one whose story you’d like to share?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
More veterans are turning to canines to cope with PTSD
More and more returning veterans are turning to dogs to help cope with post traumatic stress disorder. Last week, the Senate passed a bill (HR 1627) that would require the Veterans Affairs Department is open their housing facilities to veterans with service dogs. The current version restricts assess to canines trained by certain accredited organizations. While these animals are becoming more accepted, there are still many hurdles to face in getting full recognition.
There are three types of dogs that provide care to people with mental health illnesses. The first are psychiatric service dogs, canines that are trained to assist through specific tasks, such as creating physical space during an anxiety attack or calming handlers having a bad nightmare. The second are emotional support dogs that more generally comfort people with disabilities. And the third are therapy dogs that visit hospitals and nursing homes. The Americans with Disabilities Act does not protect the last category and these animals can’t be taken into restaurants or stores that don’t normally allow pets.
However, the laws protecting service animals can be abused. Some people have psychiatrists sign letters for non-legitimate reasons or use fake certification web sites in order to being their pets along with them. Unfortunately this makes it harder for people with real service dogs to be taken seriously. This is partly why HR 1627 has a certification requirement.
Phony working canines aren’t the only complications. While airlines and other transportation services have to accommodate service animals, this can make it difficult for people with pet allergies to travel.
Another factor, which I had never thought about, is concern for the dogs’ well being. Some believe that service dogs could be emotionally harmed when paired with a depressed or anxious person. Any pet lover knows that animals pick up on our feelings, so I can see how this can be an issue. I would love to see research done in this area.
But for those who rely on psychiatric service dogs, these animals are indispensible, and they could not imagine a world without their trusted furry partners.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Ex-shelter dogs are trained to become conversation canines
Families often misjudge how much exercise dogs need, which is how many pets end up at the animal shelter. Insatiable play drive is bad for the average home but great for working canines. The Center for Biology Conservation adopts many of these dogs and trains them to sniff out wildlife droppings. Yes you read that right!
Scientists can learn a lot from scat, including sex, species, and even stress level. They can put together a complete health profile without even ever meeting an animal in person.
The Center's current project is bringing two conservation canines to the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico to track salamanders found nowhere else in the world. These amphibians are threatened due to the changing climate. The information will be used to map salamanders and create a plan to help save the critters and conserve the forests they live in.
The two dogs scheduled for the job are a Labrador named Sampson and an Australian Cattle Dog named Alli. Both are rescue pups and have since gone through rigorous training (all through positive reinforcement!). Sampson and Alli are trained on a variety of animal droppings, including the Pacific Pocket Mouse whose scat is as small as a sesame seed! Other conservation canines can even sniff out killer whale waste.
The Center's Conservation Canines program launched in 1997 and now sends scat sniffing dogs all over the world. Their skills are unmatched as they can collect huge amounts of samples over a large area in a short period of time.
I knew that droppings can provide a wealth of information, but the work that can be done with that data is far bigger that I'd realized. In one notable project, the Center used data from African elephant scat to create a map that is being used to battle the illegal ivory trade. Now when ivory pieces are discovered, the laboratory can identify the exact area it came from, which increases the chances of finding the culprits.
All that thanks to the amazing canine nose!
News: Guest Posts
We are almost half way through Ranger’s first year or life and training to become a Conservation K9! He really did not seem to grow much the first few weeks but now he is just growing like a weed and turning into a very handsome Golden Retriever!!
Ranger’s training continues to progress. We train each weekend with the Search and Rescue team, as well as attend puppy obedience class. We trained at a couple novel locations this month, which was great to see how he reacted, and not surprisingly he did just fine. One day we had a short training session at my local UPS store here in Brenham, TX where Ranger was allowed to run around off leash, do some short sit, down, sit exercises and then I did a lot of playing with him. At one point I threw his beloved toy onto a pile of discarded cardboard boxes and he, without hesitation, clambered up to retrieve his toy. This is a really great sign at such a young age that he has potential to be a successful detection dog because it shows that he will do quite a bit to get his toy, even if it is a little scary or uncomfortable!
A week later I took Ranger to Lowe’s and he got to run up and down the lumber department, retrieved his toy off a few piles of wood and even jumped onto a very tipsy lumber cart multiple times to get his toy back… I was very pleased!!
Of course wherever we go Ranger gets to meet new people, and I am thrilled with his temperament because he is an absolute love bug with everyone he meets. I have decided that he has a definite backup career as a therapy dog one day!!
As Ranger’s training has progressed, Dogs for Conservation has also made some big strides lately. We have assembled what I like to call a “Dream Team” consisting of several amazing detection dog trainers, and thanks to one of them, Sgt. Renee Utley, we also have several fantastic dogs who are old enough and have what it takes to immediately start training for Conservation Projects. One of these new dogs is a Springer Spaniel named “Bea” who has an keen nose, absolutely loves her ball, and is starting her new career in Conservation next week as she begins training to search for one of Texas’ most endangered species!
Dogs for Conservation has teamed up with the highly esteemed Caesar Kleburg Wildlife Research Institute (CKWRI) at Texas A&M University in Kingsville, TX to start training dogs for a couple different research projects that will be very useful to biologists to survey for these endangered species they are studying. The CKWRI instantly recognized the value and potential to use dogs to assist in their various research areas, and I believe we are going to be working with them for a long time. One of these soon-to-be-announced projects is also in collaboration with one of my favorite childhood places, the Houston Zoo!
I am also happy to announce that we have had several new sponsors come on board this month including Micah Jones from Blue Giraffe Art Works who donated a commissioned portrait of a CenTex Search and Rescue dog we work with regularly during training and which proceeds from will help both organizations. We were also generously donated several great products from the Kyjen Company, whose Outward Hound product line is a perfect fit for our working dogs in the wilderness!
Check back with Dogs for Conservation next month to see how Ranger and Bea’s training is coming along! You can also join us on Facebook or on our Website to check for more regular updates!
Training (and fun!) Videos this month:
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Operation Stress Control
Forty-eight to 72 hours after a critical event occurs in a war zone — a soldier is killed in an explosion, for example — the U.S. Army’s Combat Operational Stress Control (COSC) unit offers what it calls traumatic event management to help the affected unit cope with the loss. “We debrief and talk about what they experienced,” says Capt. Cecilia Najera, an occupational therapist. “We reinforce [the fact] that the symptoms and feelings they are having are normal reactions to something that is abnormal.”
During one such gathering, in Tikrit, Iraq, the soldiers sat in a circle around Boe, a black Labrador and one of the first army dogs to be deployed specifically to provide troops with emotional support. Some of the men and women wanted to talk about the incident. Others, trying to get a handle on their feelings, just wanted to listen. A few found it easier to talk when they were petting the dog.
“It was somber,” Najera remembers. But then, in the middle of the circle, Boe broke the gloomy atmosphere with an abrupt movement. “She tried to catch a fly,” Najera says, “and everyone laughed. She definitely offered a bit of a distraction and helped lighten the mood.”
Sgt. 1st Class Boe was arguably one of the hardest-working and most popular soldiers at the base during her deployment. In a place where both the emotional and the physical climates are harsh, Boe became de facto family for many of the soldiers. She got them talking when they were inclined to shut down, and frolicking when they needed to relax. She allowed them to express themselves emotionally and demonstrate affection (which she reciprocated) in an environment where warmth and tenderness were in exceedingly short supply.
The program was launched in 2007, and Boe and another black Lab, Budge, became the army’s first COSC dogs, helping service members deal with combat anxieties, homefront issues and sleep disorders. They were donated to the army by America’s VetDogs, a sister organization of the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. The foundation has a history of working with the military, back to post–World War II days, when they provided guide dogs for vision-impaired veterans.
There is nothing new about dogs working with soldiers — they are well established and valuable in areas of detection and security. But it wasn’t until folks from the army’s COSC unit approached VetDogs about sending therapy dogs to Iraq that the nonprofit organization began training its canines for a very different purpose.
“These dogs have to have impeccable behavior,” says Wells Jones, CEO of VetDogs and the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. “We’re giving them that behavior, plus preparation for all kinds of people and circumstances.” He acknowledges that, seeking a similar emotional connection, military units have been known to adopt local dogs. But those dogs, few of whom have been inoculated, can bring disease onto a base. Most importantly, the army has a rule against it. General Order 1-A says that soldiers are forbidden to adopt, care for or even feed any domestic or wild animals in the war zone.
Trainers choose COSC dogs, whose jobs fall under the umbrella of animalassisted therapy, based on temperament. It’s critical that they do not react negatively to loud noises, and that they follow their handler’s commands despite distractions ranging from mortar rounds to a soldier bearing a tempting treat. Training includes exposure to groundrumbling noises (rifle ranges) and exotic transportation (helicopters).
With security in mind, VetDogs chose Boe and Budge in part for their color — black. “We were thinking that they’d be less visible at night,” Jones says. “But since then, our preference has changed and we’d prefer them on the lighter side because of the strong sunlight and the fur’s ability to reflect.”
Before a dog is sent overseas, army handlers spend time training at the VetDogs campus on Long Island, N.Y., and at army bases. Although one person becomes the dog’s primary handler, three others are also trained to ensure that 11th-hour staffing changes won’t affect the dog’s care. On top of that, 40 to 50 people in each unit receive one day of basic instruction in dog care — for instance, do not feed the dog MREs (the army’s infamous Meals Ready-to- Eat, which may, in some cases, be less palatable than kibble). When the dog is fully trained, he or she travels on official army orders to the war zone.
Opening Doors to Mental Health
“There’s still a mental-health stigma,” Najera says. “When you say, ‘Hi, I’m from Stress Control,’ people tend to run the other way. But I found that having a dog opened up doors. Instead of having to [make the] approach, people approached me.” She says it also gave soldiers something neutral to talk about, especially if they had pets at home. Before they knew it, they would be talking about personal aspects of their lives and even — on occasion — their feelings.
Najera found that she and Boe were always working. Not only were they available to men and women dealing with combat trauma or news of tragedy back home, but soldiers would also approach the pair at the dining facility or while they were running on the track (part of the old Iraqi Air Force base where they were staying). Najera created a program for a couple of overweight soldiers to run with Boe, and the dog even participated in a 5K on the base. The four-legged competitor still managed to boost morale, even after beating a few human racers. On Boe’s fourth birthday, the Army Dixie band played, and the dining facility staff made a cake and a piñata. “It was a party for her, but it was really for our community,” Najera says. “It just showed how much people really enjoyed having a dog.”
Boe wasn’t immune to the high-stress environment. After all, she was charged with comforting many of the 16,000 people living on a base that was active 24 hours a day. “I think the dogs experience compassion fatigue too,” Najera says. “When soldiers tell us what they’re going through, it becomes stressful for us, because we’re absorbing the stresses. I think it was the same for the dogs.” Eventually, a forced nap was scheduled into Boe’s day.
In Mosul, at Forward Operating Base Marez, Budge lived at a smaller facility but still had his work cut out for him: consoling troops at a trailer-based clinic and going for walkabouts to visit units. The base was mortared multiple time a day, and though Budge raised his ears at the sound, he didn’t panic. He even had a chance to save a life, donating blood to a military police dog who was injured along with his handler in a shooting.
Like Boe, Budge was a superstar and champion icebreaker, garnering invitations (to unit social gatherings, for instance) that a mental-health provider might never get otherwise. “We couldn’t go anywhere without someone calling his name,” recalls his handler, Staff Sgt. Syreeta Reid, an occupational therapy assistant. “They didn’t remember my name, but they always knew I was the one with Budge.” Sometimes Reid set up play dates between Budge and the soldiers: Frisbee or fetch on a field where an Iraqi soccer team once played.
In both countries, the weather is unforgiving and the physical conditions are challenging, and the dogs — just like other soldiers — are deployed with proper gear. They have booties to protect their paws from the hot ground and Doggles to protect their eyes from blowing sand. They have cooling jackets for daytime and, in Afghanistan, warm vests for night. Reid says she inspected Budge’s paws daily to make sure they weren’t cracked, and used cream to keep them hydrated. The mercury rose to 135 degrees some days, and those were indoor days for Budge.
On days with multiple soldier visits, Budge would inevitably receive too many treats. Reid says one of the hardest things was dispelling the myth that food equals love. The fact was, Budge was getting a little, well, pudgy. Reid pled with his fans to limit the treats, but eventually resorted to serving him smaller meals to control his weight.
Studies are currently underway at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, next to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, to help understand exactly how the dogs are helping soldiers. Anecdotal evidence shows that the presence of an animal helps soldiers sleep and lowers their anxiety.
But just like any other area of military medicine, it’s critical to have research to show the effectiveness of the therapy dog program, which — with training, transportation, gear and care — isn’t cheap. In the meantime, the deployments continue, even though the dogs haven’t yet been formally added to the COSC unit’s personnel roster.
Today, three dogs are serving in Afghanistan (Apollo, Timmy and Zeke). Two dogs (Butch and Zack) returned from Iraq in December and are temporarily back at VetDogs before they are redeployed to Afghanistan. After retraining, Boe and Budge were sent to Ft. Gordon’s Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Georgia. Budge died in 2010 from lymphoma, and Boe is now working at Georgia’s Ft. Benning, lending a paw to the healing of wounded soldiers. It’s hard to know if Boe is happy to be back in her home country because she takes such pleasure in working and helping people, regardless of who owns the turf. Being deployed might not be such a bad life for a dog. “These dogs are doing something they love to do,” Jones says. “They love to be with people. So it’s not the same circumstance as soldiers, who are away from their families. The dogs are with their family.”
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