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Celebrating First Anniversary Providing Life-Changing Canine Assisted Therapy to Richmond, Virginia Area Veterans

 In Service Dog Training, Service Dogs, Southeast Region

Veterans arrived on site eager to get some hands-on time with the dogs.

On January 25, 2017 our Paws for Purple Hearts Southeast Region team welcomed the first Service Dog Training Canine Assisted Therapy group to our facility in Caroline County, Virginia. The group was comprised of Veterans receiving care from the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center (PRRC) at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia.

The Veterans arrived on site eager to get some hands-on time with the dogs. They knew that they were about to become involved in a very important mission; helping to train and prepare assistance dogs that would help other Veterans.  They were hopeful that while they were engaged in this important work, they would benefit from the therapeutic effects that the structured program would provide them along their own individual personal roads to recovery.  The PPH team welcomed the Warriors with an orientation covering the program, and just as important, the service dogs in training and how to handle them properly. They learned about the importance of positive reinforcement and how patience is the key when working with young dogs.  After the lecture, the Veterans got some one on one time with the dogs. They learned several different techniques to engage a dog’s mind with sight, smell, and sound. They also broke out the stuffed animals and toy balls and started forming emotional bonds with the dogs through play.  The Veterans knew they had started something special.

PRRC Veteran takes 4 month old Ronnie on a field trip in a puppy cart.
PRRC Veteran takes 4 month old Ronnie on a field trip in a puppy cart.

An Ongoing Commitment

The original group of Veterans from the PRRC attended each session faithfully over the course of the ensuing year, making great strides and moving several service dogs in training forward along the path in preparation for their future duties.  The VA reported good things about the progress each participant was making as well.  The word spread about how enjoyable and beneficial the therapy was, and we were pleased to see several new participants join the group during the year! They have all now learned to train over forty service dog commands to help Warriors with mobility impairments and trauma-related challenges.

The group has had a wide variety of experiences with the dogs and has made great progress.  From the initial phase of learning the basics of how to groom, handle and train the dogs in the training room at the PPH facility, they have progressed to going on field trips out in the local community to locations such as grocery stores, which can be a very exciting places for young puppies unfamiliar with the sights, smells and noises there.  These field trips help prepare the service dogs in training to stay on task even in the most distracting environments, and also provide opportunities for the participants to learn and reinforce techniques and practices that support their recovery.

The PRRC group has not only helped prepare two full-fledged assistance dogs for graduation, but they have also helped several puppies along the challenging road to adulthood!  They have approached a variety of situations with flexibility, enthusiasm and an admirable determination to succeed.  On some occasions they have worn puppy pouches on their chests with cute, fluffy puppies poking out.  On others they have dived deep to reinforce and further refine a number of crucial commands for the older service dogs in training that are being groomed for graduation and placement.   We have been very pleased and impressed with their progress and growth.

Service dog in training Ronnie takes a break in a pile of autumn leaves.

Over the past year, the PPH team in Virginia has added several new groups from the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center and other organizations.  Our operations have grown quite a bit, and they continue to expand now, but it all started with that small, dedicated group from the PRRC.  They are the ones who took the bold step to try our Canine Assisted Therapy program. We at PPH are incredibly grateful to them and are very proud to continue working with this great group of true Warriors.  We always enjoy their visits and we look forward to the prospect of working in partnership with them for many years to come!

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