Retired military dogs deserve a new leash on life

Mankind has always had a special relationship with dogs.

For thousands of years, dogs have comforted us, protected us, and given us their unconditional love. Time and time again through the ages they have proven why they are considered our best friends.  And nowhere is that remarkable bond between dogs and people been more critical than on the battlefield.

Soldiers have been relying on these four-footed comrades-in-arms since the beginning of organized warfare.

The Romans were known to have use dogs in their military campaigns to disrupt and overwhelm the enemy. During the Civil War, dogs were reported to have been used to guard soldiers. In the course of World War I, thousands of dogs were used as couriers. During the second World War, the Marines used dogs in the Pacific archipelago to locate enemy positions. And in Vietnam some 4,000 dogs were used to lead jungle patrols, saving many lives.

More recently, some 2,500 military working dogs and contract working dogs worked side by side with our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. And most famously, a Belgian Malinois war dog named Cairo was an integral part of the Navy SEALs team that helped kill America’s arch-nemesis Usama Bin Laden during a daring raid in 2011.

Today, military dogs are more important than ever in keeping our service men and women safe. With noses that are 100,000 times more sensitive than humans’ giving them an unparalleled ability to sniff out and detect weapons caches and Improvised Explosive Devices, it is estimated that each military working dog saves the lives of between 150-200 soldiers.

When not keeping our warriors out of harm’s way, the dogs provide our troops with companionship and an invaluable sense of normalcy and home under almost unimaginable circumstances.

Clearly a war dog is a soldier’s best friend.

That’s certainly true for U.S. Army Staff Sergeant James Harrington, who served for four years with Military Working Dog Ryky, a seven-year-old Belgian Malinois, to locate hidden explosives. Ryky served with him on two combat deployments in Iraq from 2008 to 2009 and in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011, working with Special Operations on especially dangerous tasks. One day, their convoy was ambushed and the two sprang into action. They left the vehicle with no regard for their own safety and cleared a path to the damaged lead vehicle, allowing the injured soldiers to escape. For his remarkable courage under fire Ryky was awarded the K-9 Medal for Exceptional Service.

Faced daily with life or death situations, the bond between these dogs and those who work with them is nearly unbreakable. Yet when our human warriors end their tours of duty and return home, their faithful military dogs do not always follow.

We applaud the efforts of the military and animals lovers everywhere for the progress that has been made to bring home our military heroes.  But some of these heroes are slipping through the cracks.

If a military working dog is retired in a non-combat zone overseas, then the military does not provide transportation home since they are no longer considered military dogs, and therefore, not legally allowed to be transported on military aircraft.

The solution is simple:  Military working dogs should be brought home to U.S. soil before being retired. And, their former handlers, who have the strongest bond with these animals, should be given the first chance to adopt.

We believe this should be the case for all our military war dogs. Furthermore, there are no regulations to bring home the many contract working dogs (CWDs) owned by private companies. While many contractors are doing a good job to care for and repatriate these animals, we would like to see some requirements in the government contracts for such private companies to ensure their well-being and return them to U.S. soil, again for adoption by their former handlers if possible.

A second and vitally important issue is the veterinary care for these hero dogs, regardless of contract or military classification. While the Secretary of Defense may establish a system for the medical care of retired working dogs, such regulations prohibit federal funding.  We call on the private sector to embrace the health and wellbeing of these retired hero dogs by funding a veterinary care program with American Humane Association.

This is why we are taking to Capitol Hill today with three military hero dog teams we recently reunited, including Sgt. Harrington and Ryky, to talk about the need to bring home all of our warrior dogs and reunite them with their hero handlers.

American Humane Association has been working with Mission K9 Rescue to bring home these hero dogs so they, too, can enjoy a hero’s welcome and a happy, healthy retirement after a lifetime of service to their country. In June Sgt. Harrington was reunited with Ryky. Now, he says he plans to “let her be a dog and chill out on the couch – she’s earned it.”

We think all war dogs have.

This article originally appeared on Fox News on June 23, 2014. 

Moore, Oklahoma – One Year Later

Butler, The Weather Channel Therapy Dog

Butler, The Weather Channel Therapy Dog

Nearly one year ago, Moore, OK was hit by a tornado with peak winds estimated at 210 mph, killing 24 people and injuring 377 others. The massive twister demolished homes and businesses and severely damaged a hospital and two elementary schools. The storm carved a trail as much as 1.3 miles wide and 17 miles long.

Our legendary Red Star™ team was quick to respond, and spent more than a month there, sheltering and caring for some 200 pets trapped by the devastation. Happily, we were able to either reunite or provide new forever homes for all of the animals before we left.

Last week, Butler, The Weather Channel Therapy Dog, and I traveled to Moore to see how the community is recovering and provide comfort during this difficult time of year. While petting Butler, many people talked about their experience of the devastating tornado and how they’re feeling today. We heard amazing and heroic stories as well as stories of grief and tragedy.

Dogs can be a powerful outlet for emotion as we witnessed in our visits with first line responders such as the head nurse in the ER, a firefighter who sifted through the rubble at Plaza Elementary looking for survivors, and a 911 dispatcher who calmed community members who were desperate to find their family members.

Two elementary schools were affected by the storm: Briarwood Elementary where 300 students survived, and Plaza Towers Elementary where nine precious children were lost. Parents told us that their children now are fearful when they hear thunder and neighborhood kids get together to “play tornado.” To help the children of Moore as we enter tornado season, Butler worked with mental health providers to host a coping and stress relief seminar for kids at an after-school program at Moore Public Library. The event included a puppet show that educated kids on severe weather, arts and crafts, including coloring a picture of Butler and of course, spending time relaxing and petting Butler.

We hope that Butler’s presence helped provide continued relief and healing as these resilient people rebuild their lives. “Tornado Week” on The Weather Channel airs April 28 – May 4 to help remind people about the importance of safety and preparedness at this crucial time of the year.  Tune in on May 1-2 as The Weather Channel Mobile Strike Team, which includes American Humane Association’ s legendary Red Star Animal Emergency Response and The Weather Channel Therapy Dog “Butler,” will report from various locations throughout the mornings.

The Best Coping Mechanism Might Be Covered in Fur: Helping Children Understand the Newtown, CT Tragedy

Animals Key to Helping Kids Cope with Stress

AS THE NEWS CONTINUES TO UNFOLD ABOUT THE TRAGEDY IN CONNECTICUT, American Humane Association stands ready to assist in any way it can. The facts in the case are still being uncovered, but we do know that this tragedy has left at least 20 of our most precious treasures – our children – and at least seven other adults dead in the wake of one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history. As a mother of three, it breaks my heart for the families affected; this is the call no parent ever, ever wants to receive. I shared the president’s sentiment in hugging my children a little tighter when they came home from school on Friday afternoon.

Animal-assisted therapy handlers constantly report is that children in particular feel they can share secrets with the animals and tell them their true feelings because they believe the animal will listen and love them unconditionally.

Last year, in our organization’s annual report, I mentioned the compassion fatigue in this country; every day we’re inundated with horrible stories in the news where our animals and children are suffering at the hands of an unforgiving world. While organizations like American Humane Association are out there doing all they can to prevent this senselessness, unfortunately it seems we have a long way to go before our work is done.

This year was particularly stormy for our children, and while attacks like this can unfortunately never be predicted, we need to be prepared to help our children cope whenever despicable acts like this occur. Following the massacre in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado this summer, American Humane Association shared tips on helping children understand what happened. Given that this Friday’s attack occurred in an elementary school – a place where children should feel safe no matter what – I feel it’s appropriate to share these with you again:

  • Keep an eye on children’s emotional reactions. Talk to children – and just as important – listen to them. Encourage kids to express how they feel and ask if anything is worrying them.
  • Regardless of age, reassure them frequently of their safety and security, and reinforce that you, local officials, and their communities are working to keep them safe. Older children may seem more capable, but can also be affected.
  • Keep your descriptions to children simple and limit their exposure to graphic information. Keep to the basic facts that something bad happened but that they are safe. Use words they can understand and avoid technical details and terms such as “smoke grenades” and “sniper.”
  • Limit their access to television and radio news reports since young children may have trouble processing the enormity of the experience, and sometimes believe that each news report may be a new attack.
  • Be prepared for children to ask if such violence can occur to them. Do not lie but repeat that it is very unlikely and that you, their teachers and school staff are there to keep them safe.
  • Watch for symptoms of stress, including clinginess, stomachaches, headaches, nightmares, trouble eating or sleeping, or changes in behavior.
  • If you are concerned about the way your children are responding, consult your doctor, school counselor or local mental health professional.
  • The last point is particularly important: if you feel your child needs help beyond your capacity, please do not delay in getting them the help they need.

One thing we have found over the years is that oftentimes, there’s no better therapy than what comes from an animal. Whether it’s with the family pet, a neighbor’s pet, or even a visit to the zoo, sometimes the best cure comes on four legs and is covered in fur. For years, American Humane Association’s animal-assisted therapy teams have worked to bring comfort to those in hospitals, schools, prisons, and to children of military families. One interesting observation our animal-assisted therapy handlers constantly report is that children in particular feel they can share secrets with the animals and tell them their true feelings because they believe the animal will listen and love them unconditionally.

While we may never know the motives for the shooter’s heinous actions, we do know that whenever tragedies like this arise – and, unfortunately they will again inevitably, as much as we’d like that to not be the case – we need to do all we can to help our children cope. The world can be a scary place for children, but by hugging a dog, or holding a cat, we can show them that everything’s going to be ok. The world is scary at times for all species, but the human-animal bond can help us heal.

Again, our deepest condolences go out to the families and friends of the victims in Connecticut. Please know you’ll remain in our thoughts and prayers.

AHA calls on Department of Veterans Affairs to reverse their policy and help veterans heal with service dogs!

As we head into the week of our second annual celebration of heroes on both ends of the leash, please join us on an important mission: We must encourage the Department of Veterans Affairs to reverse a policy that ends the reimbursement for veterans who suffer from PTSD for their use of service dogs while in recovery. The American Humane Association Hero Dogs national campaign that millions of folks from around the country have been celebrating isn’t just about honoring the winning dog – it is also about the much needed education in this country about the healing power of animals in our lives.

With the Department of Veteran Affairs recent ruling, our great country has created yet another barrier to pet ownership with this ruling on service dogs, which is indeed a travesty for the many families who are welcoming soldiers home from the battlefields of Iraq. But AHA’s mission is so very relevant: we are here ready to enlighten and educate millions about the power of compassion and healing with the human-animal bond – and we are here to make the world a better place. Today, American Humane Association, the nation’s leading advocate on behalf of animals and children, called on the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to reverse a policy that would end a program reimbursing veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for their use of service dogs while in recovery.

The policy is set to go into effect on Oct. 5, 2012. American Humane Association’s focus on animal-assisted therapy dates back to 1945 when we promoted therapy dogs as a means to help World War II veterans recover from the effects of war. We know from years of experience that the human-animal bond is a source of powerful healing, whether they are children suffering from cancer or military men and women who have suffered the stress of battle. Service dogs, in particular, are an amazing, positive resource for assisting our nation’s best and bravest though their physical pain and mental anguish. We call on the VA and the United States Congress to stand up for our veterans and their families by continuing to reimburse veterans who suffer from PTSD for the cost of medically approved service dogs. In a letter sent to United States Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), American Humane Association commended the senator for his leadership on the issue and his fight on behalf of veterans who enjoy the healing benefits of service dogs. How can others help us reverse this ruling?

You can help by signing the attached petition demanding that the VA reverse this ruling – and allowing our veterans who suffer from PTSD to be reimbursed for service dogs. Thank you for joining American Humane Association as we promote the healing power of service dogs for our nation’s war heroes. Help us to encourage heroes on both ends of the leash! Sign our petition today.

Animal-Assisted Therapy Program Report: Operation Purple® Family Retreat in Black Mountain, North Carolina

Five therapy dogs and their handlers, including American Humane Association’s National Director of Animal-Assisted Therapy, Amy McCullough and her therapy dog, Bailey, attended a military family retreat on August 17-20 at Black Mountain, North Carolina. This Operation Purple® family retreat, one of eight operated nationwide by the National Military Family Association, is designed to help families reconnect after experiencing the stresses surrounding a deployment.

Over 100 families applied to attend the NC retreat and twenty were accepted to participate in this fun family getaway at no cost to the family beyond transportation. The four-day retreat took place at a campground in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains. Families from every branch of the military were present including Army, Navy, National Guard, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. Nearly 100 people attended, with approximately half of those being children ranging in age from 3-13.

Many of the families were stationed at bases in North Carolina such as Ft. Bragg and Camp Lejeune, but others traveled from as far away as Georgia, Virginia and Maryland. One of the requirements for eligibility is that the military member must have returned from deployment between 3-12 months prior to the camp and many were returning from multiple deployments.

The therapy dogs were present on the first day of the retreat to greet the families as they arrived at camp to check-in. In addition, the therapy dogs were on-site each day during mid-day free time for those families who wanted to spend time with the dogs. As families arrived weary from their hours on the road, children rushed to greet the dogs. Children who were initially afraid of dogs were able to pet the friendly, wagging therapy dogs. Families who missed their own pet were comforted by the dogs’ presence and the dogs served as a way for the children and parents from different bases to begin to talk and get to know each other. At times, the therapy dogs pulled a pensive child sitting by him/herself into the group activities.

As the weekend unfolded, one could witness the families’ increased interaction whether it was a father and son engaging in friendly competition on the basketball court or parents encouraging their children on the climbing wall. One father spoke of the role his son assumed as the “man of the house” in his absence and his surprise when he returned to find his son taller than he is. Through the therapy dog interaction and other camp activities, he’s learning how to relate to his son again.

Overall, the therapy dogs are a valuable part of the camp in helping establish a sense of normalcy and home as the military families begin to adjust to their life upon return from deployment.

To Russia (and Sweden) with Love: Taking AWRI’s Mission of Compassion Worldwide

Recently, I was invited to Russia and Sweden to represent American Humane Association and our new Animal Welfare Research Institute (AWRI). This innovative platform will advance our knowledge of the challenges facing the wellness, welfare, and well-being of children and animals and strengthen the remarkable physical and emotional bond between human beings and the creatures that share and enrich our world. I addressed the concept of a collaborative research model whereby medical and veterinary research would work together to advance health and welfare for both children and animals.

This new model is generating tremendous interest and support among the global scientific community. Did you know that there are approximately 60,000 vertebrate species on this planet? But an overwhelming proportion of the research is dedicated to just one of those species – humans. Our new model will change this.

On my trip scientists from around the world reported on the rapid advances in genetic research. At the International Conference of Advances in Canine and Feline Genomics and Inherited Diseases, the presenters explored such topics as the genetic causes for gait patterns in horses, cancers in dogs, deafness in people, and infertility in high-producing dairy cows. Genetic testing is likely to improve breeding programs and advance the health of animals. Ethical concerns were also addressed throughout my trip as scientists attempt to grasp the multiple implications of their discoveries.

I was invited to give a lecture at the newly forming genomic institute at the St. Petersburg State University. Dr. Stephen O’Brien, former head of the Laboratory for Genomic Diversity at the National Institutes of Health, is helping to create the new institute. Dr. O’Brien and I worked together in the United States to help develop a new genetic tool for identifying causes of diseases in a wide variety of cats. There I met young scientists at the institute who are very excited about their future work.

Students I met while lecturing at St. Petersburg State University, and Dr. Stephen O’Brien. They are standing in the longest academic hallway in the world.

During my downtime I did get to fulfill a dream of mine, which was to visit the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, one of the best, largest, and oldest collections of art in the world. Boasting a collection of pieces from antiquity, the Renaissance, the impressionist era and everything in between, this former palace is truly a sight to behold, and a must-visit when in St. Petersburg.

Following my time in Russia, I traveled to Sweden for another presentation. I also attended the Dog Health Workshop in Sweden where I chaired a session with attendees from 20 countries. The goal of those participating is to improve the health and welfare of purebred dogs, street dogs, and unwanted dogs throughout the world. American Humane Association has been invited to continue working with global partners on this goal.

As my husband, Jerry, has always said, you learn just as much at conferences during the breaks as you do during the sessions themselves. With so many countries represented, it was fascinating to talk to everyone and learn what they are doing in their lands. A collaborative approach is essential for expanding our knowledge base, and I look forward to the opportunity to continue sharing discoveries with our colleagues around the world.

From left to right – Panel discussing international collaboration to advance canine health and welfare:

  • Sofia Malm – Swedish Kennel Club
  • Steve Dean – The UK Kennel Club
  • Patricia Olson – American Humane Association
  • Kari Jarvinen – FCI (Fédération Cynologique Internationale) – representing 89 countries
  • Peter Friedrich – German Kennel Club
  • Urs Giger – University of Pennsylvania (geneticist) Ulf Uddman – Swedish Kennel Club
  • Ake Hedhammar – Swedish Kennel Club; Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences