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NEWS | Aug. 11, 2011

Therapy dogs lift spirits of returning Soldiers at Camp Atterbury

By Jill Swank Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Center

CAMP ATTERBURY, Ind. - Lugnut, a 3-year-old Golden Retriever and registered therapy dog, moved through several groups of Soldiers here – bringing smiles to their faces – as they waited to demobilize Aug. 4, after returning home from a 10-month deployment in Afghanistan.

Dog trainer Kristi Rush escorted Lugnut and three other teams of handlers and dogs through a few buildings to greet the returning Soldiers and staff.

“Witnessing what our dogs can offer to these Soldiers who have just come back from overseas, to see them relax and smile and feel the love, my goal has become to get as many teams on board as possible so that we could reach as many of our Soldiers as possible,” Rush said.

Rush wanted to give back to local Soldiers and share her love of dogs, so she started Welcome Home Dogs, a volunteer organization of handlers and dogs, who visit Camp Atterbury Soldiers as they work through the mobilization and demobilization processes.

Starting the program more than a year ago and working with dogs and their owners to get them both trained and become pet therapy certified, Rush said her goal was to get a few dogs and handlers certified so that once permission was given to come to Camp Atterbury, they would be able to spread out and share the love.

“I was so excited when I got the email to help with this program. It is so great to do something to support the troops returning to the states,” said Charlotte Blackketter, owner of 2-year-old Jack Russell.

Rush said the first outing to post went better then she had expected and that six teams were able to come out to visit the troops.

“I knew immediately that we were a success when I saw the look on the Soldier’s faces,” Rush said.

The next few visits produced similar results, and Rush said the mood changes that came over the Soldiers when the dogs entered the room and greeted them were priceless.

“They begin to smile. Their bodies shift more in their chairs and their posture becomes more relaxed. They open up and start to talk about their dogs, past, present and future,” she said. “Hope pours out of them into the dogs and the dogs just swallow it up without question.”

On their last visit to Camp Atterbury, Rush said she remembers a specific incident that occurred with a Soldier.

“A female Soldier spotted Lugnut as we walked into the building. She called him right to her, and within five minutes she was sitting on the floor holding on to him, scratching him and smiling,” she said. “Each time she had to move forward in the line, she made sure that Lugnut moved with her. She wasn't letting go and I think he became a bit of a life line for her.”

For Rush, it’s easy to see the positive responses of what it means to Soldiers to have a wagging, happy tail show up unexpectedly.

“Lugnut just came up to me and wanted me to pet him. I didn’t expect to see dogs today, it was a good surprise,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class George Hathaway, 1225th Corps Support Battalion, Michigan National Guard.

Lugnut and the other dogs that join him at each visit must go through a multi-step process to become pet-therapy certified, said Rush

“It begins with obedience training. Once we have the obedience training accomplished, we test for the Canine Good Citizen,” she said. “Once they have earned that certificate, we begin the pet therapy training. It can take several months to go from no training at all to a fully certified pet therapy dog. To become certified, the dog has to be at least 1-year old.”

“I've had the pleasure of coming to Camp Atterbury several times now, and it never fails to warm my heart when you watch our dogs in action,” she said.