Shelter Dogs One of Many Services for Returning Veterans

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COLUMBIA - They told her the dog had potential.

Last September, Maureen "Moe" Murphy's task was to train a dog named Whiskey. The lanky dog with black and brown fur ("brindle" as Murphy called it) showed qualities her employer, the Research Center for Human Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) was looking for in a service dog. But still, he needed the proper training.

"He was always so affectionate, he didn't really like to listen," Murphy said. "I had him for about a week and a half, and then he finally realized, 'She's the one giving me my food, she's the one doing all this stuff with me. I'm going to listen to her.'"

Murphy and Whiskey met through the Veterans and Shelter Dogs program, set up by ReCHAI. Murphy's job is to train dogs, provided by the Central Missouri Humane Society, to work as service animals for veterans. Leaving Whiskey at the Humane Society, though, meant he would still be available for adoption. So Murphy decided to foster him.

"I'm never going to turn away something that's got this much purpose," Murphy said. "I knew we could do amazing things. So I wasn't about to let him go."

Stephanie Lanham, kennel manager at the Central Missouri Humane Society, said the program serves a dual benefit - one to the shelter and one to veterans.

"[ReACHI volunteers] would come in here and help train some of our dogs. If that dog went through the training with them, once it got into a home if it was better behaved, people would be more willing to keep that dog."

"Having a project where you can actually teach a dog something, that creates a huge bond that can't be replaced by a whole lot of other things," Lanham said. "If you're depressed one day, and you go work with your dog for a couple hours, and at the end of that session, they know how to sit, that's a pretty awesome feeling. Anything that gives them good feelings versus bad ones that they're used to having is always a positive thing."

For the veteran with the dog -- Murphy and Whiskey -- the relationship is more than just a dog that can sit and stay on command.

"I'm not the type of person to approach people," Murphy said. "But people want to approach me, and want to ask me questions about him. I would have never gone out to eat by myself. I hated going to the movies by myself. But now, he can go with me. It's still training for him, but it doesn't feel like training. It feels like we're a pair. "

Murphy, a Naval flight deck operator during Operation Enduring Freedom, said dogs help combat the feelings of isolation and troubling memories that typically follow deployment.

"They're always there," Murphy said. "There's no judging. You had something in your past that you might not feel comfortable with, that you might feel sad about. That dog is there, doesn't know any of it, and still trusts you to be there for him. It's this bond, basically, that all the dog has to do is be there."

Steve Wahle of The Mission Continues said, "Everyone always goes through some transition. For some, particularly when you're young and the first four years of your adult life is doing this one very specific thing, you get out and you're very independent. It's sometimes hard to look around and say, 'Hey, I don't know what I'm doing, I need some help.'"

Murphy is a Fellow in The Mission Continues, a non-profit organization based in St. Louis that provides a monetary stipend for veterans interested in serving their community. Applicants for the fellowship must find an organization to work with, and describe why they are passionate about the service the group provides the community. Wahle, a Marine veteran of OEF, works with many of the Fellows in the Midwest, and went through the program himself in 2012.

"It's not a charity, it's a challenge," Wahle said, echoing The Mission Continues' slogan. "The only thing we give Fellows is an opportunity to build something on a foundation. It gave me an opportunity to stand somewhere, and get a lot of perspective before I jumped onto the new thing."

Wahle said coming home can be difficult for many veterans. While some may have an idea of where to go or what to do after their enlistment, others may need help transitioning into society outside the service. Some transitions are obvious, like learning basic office skills such as data entry. Others are subtle, like learning how to interact with someone in the boardroom, not the barracks. That's where the importance of groups like The Mission Continues are best seen.

"These programs are creating a place to kind of get your bearing and move on from there," Wahle said.

In Murphy's opinion, the same applies to the Veterans and Shelter Dogs' program.

"It creates an easy way for veterans to go back into a society that may not understand them. It creates opportunities for the veteran, and the dog, to just re-purpose their lives.

"A lot of veterans feel lost," Murphy said. "When you can feel a little bit less lost, because you're comfortable walking into a place with a dog, or having a bond with a dog, or training, it's just like your back in the military again. You can have a purpose again."

Eventually, when a veteran adopts Whiskey, he and Murphy will part ways. He wont be there to sprawl out on her bed, play with her other dog Aspen, or melt to the ground at her feet.

Murphy said he has a bigger purpose than that.

"His purpose is to create a better life for someone else and that purpose is so much bigger than me."