EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska – Excited voices echo down the hall and people start leaning out of their offices to see what is happening. Soon Airmen are gathered together talking. In the middle of it all is a yellow Labrador retriever wagging her tail.
The dog's name is Kansas. Wearing a blue vest decorated with squadron patches that mark her as a therapy dog, she and Jane Lorenz take a routine walk around the wing to visit Airmen in their shops.
Lorenz, director of psychological health for the 168th Wing, acquired a therapy dog to promote open communication with the Airmen. Kansas helps break down interpersonal barriers by prompting conversations, creating a positive work environment and opening opportunities for Airmen to get to know each other.
Lorenz said she thought of acquiring a therapy dog after talking with other professionals in the field.
"I had heard how they were like magic and how people would come just to see the dog and be so thrilled," Lorenz said. "When people walk into my office, their face just lights up, so I know I made a good decision."
Getting a therapy dog was relatively easy, she said. The wing commander gave the OK and Lorenz applied to the nonprofit organization Southeastern Guide Dogs in Florida.
Once the application was approved, a trainer from the organization brought Kansas to Alaska and provided familiarization training for Lorenz.
"She showed me how to work with the dog and all the basic commands. We started bonding, Kansas and I," Lorenz said.
Master Sgt. Jason Dandurand, first sergeant with the 168th Mission Support Group, said he is excited Kansas has joined the wing support staff.
"When you have a dog, or any animal, there tend to be guards that drop with folks," Dandurand said. "Having Kansas really opens up the avenue of conversation and getting to know people better."
Lorenz said one of the challenges of being the wing DHP is the perception people have about mental health and seeking help.
"I think there is a stigma with mental health where people don't want to talk about it, but I think [Kansas] helps break that stigma down," Lorenz said. "They come in and see that I am just a normal person, a social worker there to help."
Although mental health is an important aspect of the job, the DPH office is available to help Airmen solve problems and to provide resources. By helping spark conversations, Kansas creates a welcoming environment where people can find the resources they need.
"Having that availability to start a conversation, even if it's through the dog at first, it allows Airmen to connect to people who can provide them the resources to help them with whatever they are struggling with," Dandurand said.
When Lorenz and Kansas are around the wing, it's common to find them with a group of people smiling and talking. These conversations often help coworkers connect.
"They end up talking about their dog, the benefits of dogs, asking questions about Kansas," Lorenz said. "They find common ground with Kansas, something positive, something that they enjoy talking about."
As Lorenz and Kansas break away from the circle of Airmen, they stay together a little bit longer, continuing to talk about life.
"In the Guard everybody knows everybody, but just because we see each other and we recognize each other, we don't really know what is going on in people's lives," Dandurand said. "Having Kansas here really opens up the opportunity to become even better of a Guard family here at the 168th."