Therapy Program for Veterans Kicks off Second Year

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COLUMBIA - The Veterans and Shelter Dogs program started it's second year of teaching veterans how to train shelter dogs basic obedience skills.

The program allows veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder to help train shelter dogs as a means of therapy. Throughout the 24-week program, veterans are the shelter dog's primary obedience teachers. The participants meticulously follow the training steps of nationally certified dog trainer, Judy Harris, to teach the dogs new skills. Some of the basic skills taught to the shelter dogs are; sit, stay, fetch, roll-over, come, and lay-down.

"It's always interesting to see the different skill sets the dogs come into the class and leave with," said Judy Harris.

Veterans are able to interact with one another during the sessions and make friends with other participants who have been through similar situations during their own tours of duty.

"I leave here feeling really good about myself. It's nice to be able to be around other veterans who understand me. At the same time, I feel like I'm giving back by helping these dogs find homes," said Steven Franke.

The class of around 25 veterans meet twice a week for one hour intervals  at the Columbia Canine Sports Center (CCSC) with the dogs. As part of the program, participants take a short survey at the end of each class period documenting their experiences that day with their paired dog. 

Dogs that show extreme obedience skills are given the opportunity to become therapy dogs through the program. A dog with high obedience skill levels could permanently live with a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The therapy dog would then accompany the veteran around throughout the day and help with small tasks, like picking things up and bringing them to the veteran they serve. 

"We're always looking for a special dog that shows a high level of skill and agility during these classes. We've found a couple in the last year, but none such the luck yet." said Dr. Rebecca Johnson, founder of the Veterans and Shelter Dogs program.

The program is multi-faceted.  Veterans are able to use the dog training sessions as a form of therapy, while shelter dogs are being taught new tricks that make them more likely to be adopted from the Central Missouri Humane Society. At the same time, the project is part of the University of Missouri's Research Center for Human and Animal Interaction (ReCHAI), which allows MU students and staff to take part in the research study by watching the veterans interact with the dogs. ReCHAI's data will be compiled throughout the study to understand how the program is working for their post-service participants. 

"I'm excited to see what this course will be able to do for me," said Franke. "It's been a tough ride for me personally, but I'm optimistic about my future now."