Intrepid Center Mascot Comforts Psychological Trauma
By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service
GAITHERSBURG, Md., Nov. 18, 2013 In an atmosphere where service members are treated for war-related psychological trauma, a staff therapist named Ron is renowned for the specialized treatment he provides to patients, caregivers and staff by offering a sense of comfort only he can provide -- staying close by in times of need while bringing tissues to them when he feels their overwhelming emotions.
Navy Capt.(Dr.) Robert Koffman, psychiatrist and chief clinical consultant at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence on the campus of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., says his newly graduated therapy dog, Ron, the mascot at the center, is therapeutic for patients with traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and for staff and caregivers. Petting a dog releases the hormone oxytocin, which calms both the human and the dog, he said. DOD photo by Terri Moon Cronk
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Ron is a tail-wagging, 2-year-old Labrador retriever -- a specially trained service facility dog -- and serves as the mascot at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence on the campus of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Trained by a former patient -- retired Marine Corps Sgt. Jon Gordon -- Ron and four of his canine compatriots recently were handed over to their new owners in a graduation ceremony in which they became certified therapy dogs for veterans who need companion service dog assistance for everyday tasks. The dogs are named Ron, Navi (short for Navigator), Gabe II, Cadence and Birdie.
The graduation was conducted in Shady Grove Middle School here, where wounded warriors, families, Intrepid Center staff and “puppy parents” who took care of the dogs when they were not in training packed the auditorium.
It was the first canine graduation in the Warrior Canine Connection program of Brookeville, Md., which works with service members in treatment at the Intrepid Center to train the dogs for use by wounded warriors.
Ron and his canine compatriots spent two to four years in WCC’s nonprofit specialized therapy dog program. Among many skills, the dogs are trained for a veteran’s special needs, from fetching items to comforting those who battle traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, the two signature wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than 10 years.
Ron found his niche as one of two facility dogs among the graduates, said Navy Capt. (Dr.) Robert Koffman, the Intrepid Center’s chief clinical consultant. Accompanying Koffman, a psychiatrist, Ron is trained to calm patients by lying under their chairs and being nearby for petting.
“If someone is very nervous, he’ll put his head on their lap,” Koffman said, adding that petting a dog releases the hormone oxytocin, which calms both the human and the dog.
“I think we oversimplify the bond between canines and humans,” Koffman noted, adding that a blast of oxytocin is a “very complex neurochemical bond.”
There’s “a significant physiological response the animals engender in people. They’re so much more than pets,” he said.
And Ron is a welcome sight to NICoE staff members and caregivers, who face their own stress in caring for their injured family members and patients who drop by his office just to see and pet Ron, Koffman said. The life of a facility dog is pretty good, he added, “particularly when one is trained, as Ron is, to provide one-on-one comfort.”
Ron’s day is full of warrior encounters. He begins the morning by greeting wounded warriors and going through his group of commands, and after rounds in the wards of Walter Reed, Ron sees patients alongside Koffman in his office.
“Sometimes he’s borrowed to work with service members with TBI or PTSD or to uplift the spirits of the staff,” Koffman added.
Ron goes home with the doctor and sleeps with his head on Koffman’s chest.
The partnership between Koffman and Ron began when Ron was a mere pup. “I first saw him at 8 weeks, and he had me at hello,” Koffman said. “He was extremely endearing, and a cute puppy. Our bond was instantaneous.”
Since then, with the hard work of trainer Gordon, Koffman has been able to work with Ron for two years seeing wounded warriors.
“He’s endeared himself to my clients and their caregivers,” he said, adding that Ron is “quite a jester.”
(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkAFPS)