30 May 2011

Stressed-out Soldiers Can Always Go to the Dogs

Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan--Since July 2010, a 3-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever named Sgt. First Class Timmy, along with U.S. Army handler and occupational therapist Capt. Theresa Schillreff, have reached out a helpful paw and hand to service members struggling with deployment stresses, whether those stem from combat experiences or problems at home.

"It's helping people understand that if I have 'X, Y, and Z' going on in my life, how can I cope with that and make sure that I can do my job, meet our mission, and not be sent home," says Schillreff, a member of 254th Medical Detachment, an active-duty U.S. Army combat-stress unit stationed at Miesau Army Depot, Germany. On Bagram Airfield, the unit's Freedom Restoration Center is a 3- to 5-day program that offers a restorative environment to critically stressed-out soldiers. "We really try to fit them up for success."

While soldiers catch up on sleep, nutrition, and physical fitness, the center also offers classes on anger and stress management, resiliency, positive thinking, and leisure and life skills. Staff includes psychiatrists, psychologists, occupational therapists, chaplains, social workers, and nurse practitioners. Service members from all military branches may be referred to the center by a healthcare provider or chaplain. They can also self-refer, although only with approval from a commander.

Timmy and 3-year-old Sgt. First Class Apollo, a black Lab, are the only two military therapy dogs in Afghanistan. The first such dogs deployed to Iraq in 2007, Schillreff says. Timmy and Apollo are part of an ongoing study on the effectiveness of dogs in addressing soldier stress downrange.

Under General Order No. 1, soldiers stationed on Combat Outposts ("COP") or Forward Operating Bases ("FOB") are not allowed to maintain "morale dogs" or mascots. That doesn't always stop soldiers from adopting animals as pets, however, which places those soldiers at risk of disease and injury. "My personal opinion on it is that we seek out affection and comfort, and that's something that dogs can do for us," says Schillreff. "We're trying to use it in a therapeutic way. Having the dogs with the combat-stress teams, you can still have that morale boost, but you have a dog who is well-trained, and who doesn't come with the risks of these wild animals."

Timmy wears either a Universal Camouflage Pattern (U.C.P.) uniform while on duty, or a similarly colored bandana during hot summer months. In addition to long walks and playing fetch, the calm and steadfast canine has made a hobby of collecting the uniform patches of those soldiers with whom he has visited. His collection includes the distinctive emblem of the Iowa Army National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT), scheduled to return to the United States later this summer.

Timmy has been trained to be approachable and non-aggressive, Schillreff says. The dog was donated to the U.S. Army by America's Vet Dogs, an affiliate organization to the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, Inc., Smithtown, New York. According to the organization's website, military therapy dogs placed in combat-stress clinics provide a supportive, non-judgmental presence to service members during interactions with healthcare providers. "The dogs' handlers have reported that soldiers have talked longer, and more meaningfully, to mental health professionals when the dogs were present."

While considered a service dog, Timmy's role as a therapy or emotional support dog differs from that of a "Red Bull" litter of psychiatric service dogs currently being trained by Paws & Effect, a Des Moines, Iowa-based non-profit.

"Timmy fits in to our mission in a lot of different ways," says Schillreff. "For the Freedom Restoration Center, he is here when we do our one-on-one interviews with service members. He is available during leisure time, to play. We sometimes have him in our classes with us, so there can be some interaction there as well. Just petting a dog helps lower your heart rate, which reduces stress. He can provide comfort to people just by laying at their feet ..."

"Our other mission with Timmy is with outreach and prevention. We do what we call 'walkabouts'--we take the dog for a walk. [...] We just go around and let people pet him and play with him. It's kind of a morale boost--he provides a comfort of home that people don't otherwise get--but he also gives us an 'in.' He opens doors."

Timmy's rank is something of a military tradition--the animal normally outranks the handler. It's unusual for an officer to be lucky enough to be tasked as dog-handler, says Schillreff. Still, Timmy is unlikely to promote to major prior to Schillreff's return to Germany in July. Timmy has one more year on his 2-year deployment to Afghanistan. "I have never actually owned a dog before ..." she says. "I think I've had one of the best deployment jobs ever."

As part of his duties, Timmy occasionally attends memorial services, and mission debriefings after convoys have experienced significant injuries. At such times, Timmy serves as an easy-to-recognize, easy-to-approach reminder of available behavioral health resources. "Going out regularly helps us become familiar with units, so that when they do have hard times--a significant injury or death--they can call me up," says Schillreff. "Then we go out, and provide comfort and support."

"People stop by all the time to visit him, media included," says Schillreff. "That's the nice thing about him. He doesn't discriminate. He doesn't care who you are or what your rank is. When he puts on his uniform, it says, 'I'm doing my job. I'm here for you.'"


  1. I recall your interest in service dogs and am so very happy to see that you found Sgt First Class Timmy in the field.

    Keep up the brilliant reporting (and keep staying safe!)


  2. I'm afraid I don't feel too brilliant right now. Long days and heat are beginning to take their tolls. I'm glad you liked the connection between Timmy and the "Red Bull" puppies back home in Iowa.

    I'll look forward to catching up with you on the personal front, perhaps later next month?

    Until then, "Attack!"

  3. If military dogs typically have one rank higher than their handler, what rank does Bo, the Commander and Chief's (aka Obama) Portuguese water dog, hold?

    Keep up the good stories.


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