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The Perfect Pair: Rescued Dogs Help Returning Soldiers

Two for one

What if two troubling issues could be addressed at the same time? In a positive way? With a clicker and with a smile?

What if two needy populations could be brought together, creating joy, success, and a future where there might not have been a future, or a future quite as promising?

Emma, Operation Delta Dog's first canine trainee!

The amazing Operation Delta Dog, an organization that matches struggling veterans with homeless dogs, is working to supply answers to those "what if" questions.

Pieces and people come together

In the summer of 2012, Trisha Blanchet, founder and president of Operation Delta Dog, began to notice, and be bothered by, headlines about veteran suicides. The statistics about veteran suicides, many of which can be traced to TBI (traumatic brain injury) and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) where servicemen and servicewomen are left debilitated, sleepless, and unable to cope, are distressing and heartbreaking.

The proud daughter of an Army veteran (her father served in Viet Nam and earned Distinguished Flying Cross and Bronze Star awards), she looked into what was being done to help struggling veterans. While she discovered a handful of organizations in places like California, New Mexico, and Arizona that were training service dogs to help veterans with TBI (traumatic brain injury) and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), there was nothing like that in New England. When she found herself thinking, "Someone should start something like that around here!" she realized she might just be the one to do it.

Around that time, Trisha entered a "pitch contest" sponsored by a local organization, the Merrimack Valley Sandbox. The aim was for local entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas for new businesses and win some start-up money. Trisha, with the seeds of her Operation Delta Dog project, ended up winning the grand prize of $10,000! Those funds became the stake that launched Operation Delta Dog. The organization was incorporated in January, 2013.

As she researched the issues and met people with experience in the field, Trisha realized that a good trainer would be the most crucial piece of the puzzle to help the organization succeed. The author of books, including Dog-Friendly New England and Dog-Friendly New York, Trisha considered herself a dog lover, but not a dog trainer. She contacted Aaron Clayton and Gretchen Carey at Karen Pryor Clicker Training, who got her started by teaching her all about positive training and clicker training methods.

As Trisha's research continued, she kept hearing the name "Carolyn Barney." When the two finally met, Trisha explained her idea and asked Carolyn for advice about finding a great trainer. She was happily surprised when Carolyn said that she herself would be interested in getting involved with Operation Delta Dog. Carolyn recalls coming in just to offer information on evaluating dogs—and working her way into becoming training director!

Carolyn and the canines

Carolyn's extensive background and varied experiences made her an ideal fit with the young and growing Operation Delta Dog organization. A longtime dog trainer and the owner of multiple training businesses, Carolyn is also an author and has been a breeder.

Rocky is training to be a seizure-alert dog. Here he is
getting comfortable in a retail store environment.

Perhaps the most valuable skill Carolyn had to offer Operation Delta Dog is her ability to evaluate dogs. Having spent time with many, many dogs—years of training and behavior consultation experience, breeding English springer spaniels, working in shelter and rescue environments, participating in canine sports and competition, including tracking, competitive agility, nose work, and obedience—Carolyn knows dogs. Her experience in evaluating dogs and their temperaments, including as a behavior consultant for the MSPCA, has been augmented by extensive education as well, including seminars, workshops, and personal study. Carolyn examines dogs very carefully, and is willing to describe what she finds—even if that requires her to say "no" to a human/canine match in a family or service environment.

The other tremendous asset Carolyn offers with Operation Delta Dog is her background in program development for training schools, with her role at Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) the most prominent example. Carolyn is a valued KPA faculty member and through the years, at KPA and elsewhere, has trained and mentored many other trainers who have continued in the dog training field. Her prior boarding/training experience has helped her create the Operation Delta Dog model and training plan.

Of course, Carolyn has worked with many humans as well, and her experience with the public assures her of comfort and sensitivity in dealing with veterans, families, donors, and sponsors, as well as with the special canines that are part of Operation Delta Dog.

With, in Trisha's words, "the Rolls Royce of dog trainers" on board, Operation Delta Dog began to take off.

Service dog growth

Service or assistance animals now perform an amazing array of tasks for their human partners. "Seeing Eye" or guide dogs may be the most well-known assistance dogs, but they serve just one of many needs that have been met with service dogs. Dogs have been trained to help people with disabilities that include vision and hearing loss, seizure disorders, mental illness, dementia, diabetes, and autism, among other health issues.

The idea of matching service veterans with service dogs is not brand-new nor is it unique to Operation Delta Dog. Trisha Blanchet has tried to model Operation Delta Dog after existing organizations, admiring their out-of-the-box thinking. But this kind of matchmaking is relatively novel and continues to evolve, with each organization tackling the matching and training a bit differently.

Operation Delta Dog seeks to make matches for servicemen and women that can occur relatively quickly and closer to home.

Who are the human partners?

Veterans with TBI and PTSD have real struggles. TBI and PTSD often go hand-in-hand. Symptoms and disabilities related to TBI and PTSD are not always as visible as the needs may be in other service dog programs. TBI sufferers can face an array of short- and long-term memory issues and problems with balance, while those with PTSD can have symptoms like depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, hyper-vigilance, and antisocial behavior. Often the needs of veterans who suffer from TBI and PTSD are multiple, complex, and interconnected.

Local veterans with TBI/PTSD are the human partners in the Operation Delta Dog match process. Operation Delta Dog seeks to make matches for servicemen and women that can occur relatively quickly and closer to home, as these veterans may otherwise wait years or have to travel across the country to find a canine partner. Living in or near northeastern Massachusetts ensures that the veteran is close enough to attend the necessary training classes.

U.S. military veterans with a diagnosis of PTSD and/or TBI can apply for a service dog; applications must be submitted by a doctor, counselor, social worker, or other professional who works with the veteran. As the dog cannot be considered a service dog until training is complete, other application requirements include assurances that the applicant is physically and financially able to care for his or her canine match in the long term, and that the applicant lives in a place where dogs are allowed, at least during the training process.

Note that since TBI has a bigger impact on memory and can affect physical functioning as well, the extent of a veteran's TBI may determine whether he or she can complete the Operation Delta Dog training program, or handle a service dog at all. The existence of family support may be a positive mitigating factor in these cases.

Ideal candidates for the service dog positions at Operation Delta Dog are stable, have a desire to work, and are easily motivated by food.

Where are the canine partners?

The canine partners in Operation Delta Dog matches are homeless dogs. They come from shelters and rescue groups, and are dogs that might otherwise be euthanized. Carolyn's shelter/rescue contacts in the Northeast have been helpful by suggesting dogs to Carolyn; Carolyn performs the final evaluation. So far North East All Retriever Rescue (NEARR), Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption, and Save A Dog have all provided dogs for Operation Delta Dog.

Selected dogs must meet strict guidelines relating to temperament, health, and age. According to Carolyn, the best canine contenders for the service work that Operation Delta Dog veterans require are dogs that are "bomb-proof." In other words, the best dogs are ones that are assessed by Carolyn to be comfortable with "everybody and everything."

Ideal candidates for the service dog positions at Operation Delta Dog are stable, have a desire to work, and are easily motivated by food. Carolyn often looks for medium-to-large-sized retriever mixes, about 1-2 years old. But she admits that those dogs are what she thinks work best so far; she is still new to fine-tuning the matches between dogs and the needy veterans with TBI and PTSD.

Matchmaking is tricky, of course

Operation Delta Dog is extremely careful to choose safe and appropriate dogs for the training program. Likewise, the organization is very careful about placing service dogs; these rescued dogs deserve to have safe and stable lives. And timing is important, too. For some veterans, the training involved in the Operation Delta Dog program may too much if those veterans are not at the "just right" point in their healing process.

At the present time, there are very few studies out there that assess the benefits of a program like Operation Delta Dog—its structure, goals, and/or results. According to Trisha, all of the related organizations are learning as they go. Still, anecdotal evidence points to profound, positive changes in the lives of both the people and the dogs. The rescued dogs get a home and a sense of purpose, and the veterans get a companion and a helper to get them through the tough times.

While the varied and multiple needs that returning veterans present require personalized assessment, service dogs start by offering what therapy dogs offer. Just like the therapy dogs that visit people in the hospital and frequent elder care programs and work with children to improve literacy, Operation Delta Dog canine partners offer comfort, solace, and companionship—and a chance to connect. Those beginning gifts are augmented by the valuable and personalized benefits that appear as Operation Delta Dog training commences.

The training philosophy at Operation Delta Dog is based on the fact that positive training builds the solid relationship that is important in motivating a dog to work as much as a service dog does.

Operation Delta Dog training—it clicks!

With no standard definition of a service dog program like this one, and with no manual that describes "what works," the key team members at Operation Delta Dog have followed their own instincts, based on their multiple successes in the past. What both Trisha and Carolyn describe as Operation Delta Dog's clearest advantage is the fact that the organization maintains control over the dogs as well as over the specific training plans and steps.

Clicker training is the gold standard at Operation Delta Dog. Service dogs are trained by professional trainers who are Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partners (CTP) or have equivalent knowledge and experience. Volunteer coaches also have that same level of training and experience. The training philosophy at Operation Delta Dog is based on the fact that positive training builds the solid relationship that is important in motivating a dog to work as much as a service dog does. Staff members believe that, ethically, there really is no other training option. Clickers and treats are used in training; for the most part, a service dog in training's food is earned through work.

Steps and stages

Training starts with a new service dog spending time with Carolyn—at her home! This in-home foundation training lasts about one month. During that time, the veteran to whom the new dog has been matched begins to learn the mechanics of training, and specifically how to use the clicker and handle treats.

The next step is a boarding and training process where classes, including private sessions, are held for both partners in the service match. By week four, Carolyn and her trainers work daily with the human/canine team. By week five, the dog moves to the veteran's home if both the dog and the veteran are ready. There, training continues daily for a minimum of a week. After this first week of at-home work, training continues with a minimum of 2 sessions a week for 6 to 12 months. Hands-on training with the veteran is conducted for about a year; the goal after that is for the veteran to maintain training work himself or herself.

Rocky with trainer Carolyn. Too much shopping?

Support and resources will continue to be offered to "graduates" of the Operation Delta Dog program. Once the service dog has been certified and the veteran has taken over day-to-day maintenance training, there is still frequent and open communication between the canine/human pair and Operation Delta Dog. The program's staff members check in regularly with the veterans, offering follow-up training or any other form of support. They also check in with the dogs' veterinarians in order to ensure that the dogs remain healthy and happy.

An important Operation Delta Dog goal, related to but outside of training and matching service dogs, is to provide a social kinship among the growing group of veterans and dogs. Trisha refers to this group the "Delta Dog community," and the value of interaction among those who have completed the Operation Delta Dog program cannot be overstated. Providing an opportunity for veterans with TBI or PTSD challenges who have been matched with trained service dogs to meet and share is a potentially long-term bonus. An informal forum where tips and tricks, and funny and not so funny training stories, can be shared creates camaraderie among those who find themselves in similar circumstances. These connections and opportunities for networking and support are particularly welcome, as TBI and PTSD can be socially isolating.

Skills training—many examples, even more potential

The training skills that each dog learns are unique and are ultimately tailored to match the needs of the dog's human partner. In the end, a very specific skill set may be trained and mastered, but at the start all of the service dogs learn basic foundation behaviors. These foundation skills are essential for most service dogs, and for many life situations. They can also be used as building blocks on which more specific behaviors are developed.

Emma is patient while Carolyn purchases a snack.

"Wait" is a perfect example of a foundation behavior. "Mat," "settle," "sit," "down," and "stay" are other beginning commands. All of these behaviors are put on cue early in the training process and can be transferred to a new, and perhaps more difficult, skill and cue in the future. Shaping, capturing, and targeting (to hand, nose, stick, chin, foot, etc.) are all used to train foundation skills. Once the basics are trained to reliability, they can be transformed into more challenging behaviors.

For example, the foundation skills of chin and hand targeting can evolve into cues that direct a service dog to turn a light switch on or off. At first, the dog might be trained to respond to a verbal cue and use his chin to push the switch down and his nose touch to push the switch up. At a later point, the dog will learn to look at the switch and then decide to use either a chin or nose touch based on the starting position of the switch (does the switch point up or down?). The more challenging task of using built-in discrimination to assess whether the switch is up or down and whether a chin or nose target is called for is still based on the early fundamentals or foundation behaviors.

Other examples that show the growth of a foundation behavior include:

  • Wait—Waiting at doorways, at stairs, entering and exiting a car, entering and exiting an elevator. Waiting helps to ensure safety and control in many situations a veteran with TBI or PTSD faces.
  • Stand/Stay—A service dog that stands or stays in place can provide balance and support to an unsteady veteran.
    • In check-out lines, a veteran may need his or her service dog to both wait/stay and stand. Patience and support are required here!
  • Down/Down for a specified duration—It is essential for a service dog to comply with a down instruction in many public places, for example, under a table at a restaurant.
  • Shaping a retrieve can evolve into a service dog picking up items for a veteran with mobility restrictions, and possibly even retrieving a prosthesis!
  • Targeting:
    • Chin target on a person's body (usually the lap or chest) to provide comfort for anxiety or panic attacks, or to interrupt upsetting thoughts
    • Paw target on a leg to alert a diabetic to low blood sugar, to alert a pre-seizure event, as a hearing dog alert, or to awaken a veteran from a nightmare
    • A hand target that is taught as a cue to stand in front of the veteran is likely to be transferred and used in situations to provide space for the veteran at the approach of a new person. 
    • Target training has been used to train a service dog to enter a dark room and on switch lights

Measures of success: the team training

How do Operation Delta Dog trainers know when a service dog has been trained successfully and completely? Beyond ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements (the animal must master basic obedience training and also complete at least three tasks for the person that the person cannot otherwise do for themselves), what does Operation Delta Dog require for training to be "finished?"

At minimum, an Operation Delta Dog service dog must meet CGC (Canine Good Citizen) requirements and be reliable with service work at home and in public. As the program evolves, the measures of success are likely to be revisited and reevaluated, of course.

Measures of success: the organization

Officially launched in 2013, Operation Delta Dog is just a few months into existence. Yet there has been success to show already. Two dogs have begun service-dog training. Another dog with potential has been selected from a shelter and will begin training after some minor health issues are resolved completely.

With two dogs in training at the present time (the pilot program), with two more dogs about to start the training process, and with the goal of training ten dog-veteran teams in the year that extends from July 2013 to July 2014, Operation Delta Dog is growing in leaps and bounds. Trisha and Carolyn see success from the positive training methods, success that makes for happy and reliable workers, both human and canine.

With an emphasis on training quality, rescuing dogs with potential, and meeting the individual needs of each returning service veteran in the program, Operation Delta Dog hopes to continue making a positive difference.

Future dreams

Amend the organization's motto and you'll see the organization's dream:

"All dogs get the homes they need, and all veterans get the help they deserve."

It's clear that Trisha Blanchet, Carolyn Barney, and all of the people involved with Operation Delta Dog would like to grow and expand, serving more homeless dogs and more veterans with PTSD and TBI challenges. The overarching goal would be to meet all need, to have a facility with multiple trainers to meet as big a demand as possible.

Trisha and Lindy (a new trainee) hosting
a table at a recent Lowell Spinners game.

Dreaming even bigger, Operation Delta Dog imagines expanding to help veterans with a variety of other issues, and expanding to other geographic regions, as well. How about a headquarters and training center, too? There are grand plans!

The biggest challenge to these dreams is funding.

There were only enough funds from the original grant to cover the pilot program. Trisha is now searching for other ways to get sponsors, donors, and grants to continue to serve more disabled veterans and homeless dogs. The need is great, but Trisha believes it's possible to meet that need with the help of businesses and individuals who share the desire to give back to the service people who have given so much.

To help

There are many ways that people can help the Operation Delta Dog cause. The program's first fundraising event, a "Walk for Veterans," will be held on November 9, 2013—Veteran's Day weekend!—at Great Brook Farm State Park (Carlisle, MA). Corporate and personal donations, as well as donation of time, are very much appreciated. Additional details can be found on the organization's How to Help page.

Trisha says, "Service dogs might not be the perfect solution for the ailments of TBI and PTSD, but I believe we must try new ways to get these veterans the help they need."

About the author
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Marie Clougher is the managing editor at Pen and Press, an editorial services and consulting company. She contributes to Karen Pryor Clicker Training in many behind-the-scenes capacities.

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