Wounded warriors led convenience dog evolution in the military health system. It also reflects their mission to provide respect, comfort and support for these service members with dogs.
The facility dog program manager at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland, described how a wounded warrior came to him and said, “Hey, I want you to make a uniform for Archie out of my pants.” Archie, then a retired German Shepherd from WRNMMC, was an honorary Marine colonel and O’Connor’s dog.
“It started a relationship with these different dogs,” she said. Most facility dogs now have a uniform for their service, not just their tactical dress uniform, but also a service dress uniform and special holiday and awareness clothing. Today, the material for the uniform comes mostly from dog handlers, because we are in a transitional conflict.
Most comfort dog uniforms have flaps or pockets. Wounded warriors and personnel often pin insignia, mission, rank patches, and other meaningful mementos inside the flap.
U.S. Navy Captain Julie Ann Darling’s dog Angus, a black Labrador retriever, is an honorary Navy Nurse Corps lieutenant. A flight nurse colleague of Darling’s said Angus wanted to wear her flight wings. “It’s a tradition,” Darling said.
These memorials can bring closure to the families of grieving service members, O’Connor suggested.
O’Connor was contacted by the family of a service member who died suddenly. The service member had given Archie his corpsman badge. “His parents arrived and asked if the new dog (a German Shepherd named Walter Reed) could wear their son’s badge, and of course we said yes. So, it has gone down in history,” she said. Luke is an honorary hospital corpsman second class.
“Some of the things we get passed down are really sad … but we believe that by passing them from one dog to the next, we can keep that person’s memory alive,” O’Connor said. “It’s steeped in tradition and commitment to others.”
Archie’s uniform was fitted with several devices weighing 10 pounds. His jacket, painting and mementos are housed at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia.
Harvey Douce, a photographer at WRNMMC, has been involved in recording the dogs’ roles since the center first used them in 2007.
“Not a day goes by that we don’t see dogs going through the hospital, and if you’re having the worst day in the world, when you see those dogs, it makes you feel so much better,” he said.
Wounded warriors in the hospital are far from home and may be pet owners, Dues said. When facility dogs visit these patients, “it’s like a little piece of home for them. It’s really nice to see the engagement. It takes their mind off some of the craziness they’ve been through.
Psychological, physical and emotional benefits of facility dogs
“The physical, mental, and emotional health benefits associated with human-animal bonding have emerged in the scientific literature over the past few decades, and the research community has been trying to quantify why we are so drawn to companionship,” said US Army Lt. Col. Todd French. , Texas.
“These studies confirmed previous findings related to the cardiovascular benefits of bonding, including reduced heart rate and blood pressure associated with pet contact, and that pets positively influence feel-good hormones such as beta-endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin,” French explained.
“Several studies show that animal contact is associated with mental and emotional health benefits such as reduced stress (by lowering the hormone cortisol), alleviating depression, and treating PTSD.
Animals also benefit from human intervention. “Research shows that social interactions with humans lower cortisol levels and increase oxytocin in four-legged friends,” French added.
Facility dogs throughout MHS
MHS provides facility dogs to handlers after outstanding behavior training through nonprofit service dog training organizations. They are matched with a facility handler who takes responsibility for their well-being and duties. A sampling of convenience dogs includes:
Capt. Earle of Madigan Army Center, a black Lab
- US Army Major Bud, a yellow lab honorably commissioned alongside Coco, on June 6, 2022, as one of Brooke Army Medical Center’s two facility dogs.
- US Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ellie May at WRNMMC specializes in reducing the stress associated with dental procedures.
- Honorable Thunderbird, US Air Force Major General Goldie at WRNMCC
- Cpt. Patty Mack, Cpt. Charlie, and Cpt. EC is also at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, three of about 10 therapy dogs serving in the Navy.
- US Navy Lt. Cmdr. Shetland and U.S. Army Sgt. F. of the Uniformed Services University. Grover at the Edward Hebert School of Medicine
- US Marine Corps Master Sgt. Dillon, Black Lab at WRNMMC
- A yellow lab and a black lab working with Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Cork, Lt. LC, at Naval Medical Center San Diego.