While in treatment, service members can join a program to train dogs for veterans who are mobility impaired, said Rick Yount, executive director of Warrior Canine Connection.
"There are tens of thousands of warriors who are trying to transition back [into society]. There are also thousands of veterans on waiting lists who need trained service dogs," Yount explained.
At NICoE, Yount encourages service members to volunteer for the program, especially those who might not respond to traditional treatment.
"I tell them, ‘While you're getting treatment, here's an opportunity to help train a dog for a veteran. You're still a part of the war effort," Yount said.
He said it's not just training a dog -- the service members are doing it to care for their fellow veterans.
The relationships developed between the service members and the dogs are symbiotic, Yount said, adding that the dog training is an intervention for their post-trauma stress.
Service members who join the dog training program at NICoE go through basic commands, and then move on to more complex tasks such as opening doors, turning on light switches and pulling wheelchairs, said Marine Corps Sgt. Jon Gordon, a former NICoE patient and now an intern in service-dog training.
Diagnosed with PTSD and TBI following two deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan, Gordon said when traditional therapies didn't seem to work for him, he was sent to Yount. Not enthused at first, Gordon said, he soon saw the power of training dogs.
"Working with them, you have to learn to regulate your emotions and tone of voice," he said.
The NICoE service members are taught to give authoritative commands, and praise the dog in a high-pitched, excited voice, Yount said.
It only took a few sessions with a black Labrador named Birdie for their relationship to click, Gordon said.
Gordon said he'd stayed in his apartment and avoided people, ordering in pizza for meals. But after meeting Birdie his life changed dramatically, he said.
Now when he has appointments at a Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Gordon said he has to arrive early to answer all the questions about the dog. No longer avoiding people, Gordon said he is instead raising awareness of the service dog program for mobility-impaired veterans.
"When the veterans see Birdie, their faces just light up," he said.
Gordon plans to become an occupational therapist, using dogs with patients.
"It changed my life," Gordon said of the service dog program. While he used to get little sleep, he now gets about six hours each night, because Birdie is close by.
"It saved me from being a nobody and just another statistic," he said.
"When you see him making progress, it's rewarding," Gordon said of Birdie, "You see how you actually make a difference in training the dog."
Birdie "gave me a reason to get up in the morning and do something," Gordon added.
Yount said it's the release of the hormone oxytocin in the body that relaxes people who are around a dog.
"It's a powerful drug," he said.
Yount said the two goals of the program involve encouraging the healing capacity of the service member and motivating them to engage in the power of the warrior ethos. He recounted a visit from a member of Congress at NICoE, who asked a service member what he got out of the canine training.
"He told him, ‘Before I started training this dog, my wife and I were getting ready to divorce,'" Yount said. ‘I treated my 3-year-old son like a stubborn private. I used the "praise voice" on him, and it really taught me how to connect with my 3-year-old son on a 3-year-old level.'"
But training dogs is not an easy task, Yount said.
"Dogs have a natural ability to challenge leadership. Training is based on patience and assertiveness. It's a process," he said.
And the dogs learn how service members with PTSD and TBI react, Yount said. Those suffering from PTSD tend to keep to themselves but "a dog won't let you do that," he said.
"We have to come up with ways of retraining these warriors, because they go through training to keep their emotions from interfering in combat, and the trauma they experience in combat has that emotional numbing impact," Yount said. "Then how do we reboot them to 'come back' when they [return home to] infants, toddlers and teenagers?"
The next step is research, Yount said.
"We want to prove it and look at its efficacy," he said of the dog and service member bonding," he said. "We want to maximize the therapeutic effect of working with these dogs."