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Military Service Dog Helps Train Medical Students : Vaccines


Service dogs can be trained to provide different types of support to their human companions, as medical students learn by interacting with “Shetland,” a highly skilled retriever mix.

Julie Rovner/KHN


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Julie Rovner/KHN


Service dogs can be trained to provide different types of support to their human companions, as medical students learn by interacting with “Shetland,” a highly skilled retriever mix.

Julie Rovner/KHN

The newest member of the faculty at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences has a big smile and likes to be scratched behind the ears.

Shetland, just 2 years old, is half golden retriever, half Labrador retriever. As of this fall, he is also a lieutenant commander in the Navy and a clinical instructor in the USUHS Department of Clinical and Medical Psychology in Bethesda, Maryland.

Among Shetland’s abilities are “hugging” on command, picking up a dropped object as small as a cell phone, and carrying a small basket full of candy for medical students and graduates studying on the military medical school campus.

But Shetland’s job is to provide much more than smiles and pats on the head.

“He’s here to teach, not just to lift people’s spirits and relieve some post-test stress,” says Arthur Kellermann, dean of USUHS. He says the students who interact with Shetland are learning “the value of animal-assisted therapy.”

The use of trained dogs to help their human companions with specific tasks of daily living has skyrocketed since studies in the 1980s and 1990s began to show how animals can benefit human health.

But service dogs come in many varieties. Service dogs, such as guide dogs for the blind, help people with disabilities live more independently. Therapy dogs can be house pets that visit people in hospitals, schools, and nursing homes. And then there are the highly trained working dogs, like the Belgian Malinois, who recently helped commandos find Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Shetland is technically a “military installation dog”, trained to provide physical and mental assistance to patients, as well as to interact with a wide variety of other people.

Your military commission does not entitle you to the salutes of your human counterparts.

“The ranks are a way of honoring services [of the dogs] as well as strengthening the bond between the staff, the patients and the dogs here,” says Mary Constantino, deputy director of public affairs at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. “The dogs at our facility don’t wear medals, but they do wear rank insignia and of unit. patches”.

USUHS, which trains doctors, dentists, nurses and other health professionals for the armed forces, is located on the same campus in suburban Washington, DC Two of Walter Reed’s seven facility dogs: hospital corpsman twoNorth Dakota Class Sully (President George HW Bush’s former service dog) and Marine Sgt. Dillon attended Shetland’s formal commissioning ceremony in September as guests.

Walter Reed’s dogs, on campus since 2007, earn commissions in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps. They wear special vests that designate their service and rank. The dogs visit and interact with patients in various medical units, as well as in physical and occupational therapy, and help boost the morale of the patients’ families.

But Shetland’s role is very different, says retired Col. Lisa Moores, associate dean for assessment and professional development at USUHS.

“Our students are going to be working with therapy dogs in their careers and they need to understand what [the dogs] they can do and what they can’t do,” he says.

As in civilian life, the military has made significant use of animal-assisted therapy. “When you walk through virtually any military treatment facility, you see therapy dogs walking through clinics, hospitals, and even intensive care units,” says Moores. Dogs also play a key role in helping service members who have post-traumatic stress disorder.

Students need to learn who is “the right patient for a dog or some other therapy animal,” he says. “And by having Shetland here, we can build that into the curriculum, so it’s another tool that students know they will one day have for their patients.”

The students, unsurprisingly, are delighted with their new teacher.

Brelahn Wyatt, a Navy ensign and second-year medical student, says Walter Reed’s dogs used to visit the school’s 1,500 students and faculty fairly regularly, but “having Shetland here all the time is great.” Wyatt says the only thing he knew about service dogs before, or at least thought he knew, was that “you’re not supposed to pet them.” But the Shetland acts as both a service dog and a therapy dog, so he can be petted, Wyatt learned.


Brelahn Wyatt, a Navy ensign and second-year medical student, shares a hug with Shetland. The dog’s military commission does not entitle him to salutes.

Julie Rovner/KHN


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Julie Rovner/KHN


Brelahn Wyatt, a Navy ensign and second-year medical student, shares a hug with Shetland. The dog’s military commission does not entitle him to salutes.

Julie Rovner/KHN

Having Shetland around helps students see that “there is a difference,” Wyatt says, and understand how that difference manifests itself in a health care setting. Like his colleagues Sully and Dillon, Shetland was bred and trained by America’s VetDogs.

The New York nonprofit provides “stress management” dogs for active duty military missions overseas, as well as service dogs for disabled veterans and civilian first responders.

Many of the puppies are raised by a team made up of inmates (during the week) and families (on weekends), before returning to New York for formal service dog training. National Hockey League teams such as the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders also breed pups for the organization.

Dogs can be particularly helpful in treating service members, says Valerie Cramer, manager of America’s VetDogs service dog program. “The military is thinking about resilience. They are thinking about well-being, about decompression in the combat zone.”

Oftentimes, people in pain don’t talk to another person, but instead open up to a dog. “It’s an opportunity to start a conversation as a behavioral health specialist,” says Cramer.

While service dogs teaming with individuals have been trained to perform both physical and emotional tasks, such as gently waking a veteran from a nightmare, facility dogs like Shetland are special, Cramer says.

“That dog has to work in all different environments with people who are under pressure. It can work for multiple handlers. It can go visit people, it can go visit hospital patients, it can knock down bowling pins to entertain or pass time in bed. with a child”.

The military rank given to dogs is no joke. They can be promoted, as Dillon was from Army Specialist to Sergeant in 2018, or demoted for bad behavior.

“So far,” says Kellermann, “Shetland has a perfect conduct record.”

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit, editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation. KHN is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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