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The Dog Days are here

Navy Commander Darren Couture pets Goldie while sitting at his desk.
By Christopher Austin

Dogs are considered man’s best friend because they’re always a friendly face when needed and are unconditionally faithful. The Walter Reed Bethesda (WRB) Facility Dog Program was started to provide company for sick and wounded Service members and their families at Walter Reed National MilitaryMedical Center (WRNMMC), but the dogs don’t just stop there – they also help those studying to treat the wounded, ill, and injured.

Facility dogs frequently make visits to the UniformedServices University (USU) to provide their companionship to the students, staff and faculty.

Goldie sits as he’s petted behind the ears by someone out of frame, as another person waits their turn
The facility dogs don’t just engage students, they also are happy to
 greet University faculty and staff (some of whom have treats).
(Image credit: Christopher Austin)
“There’s just something about a dog; a dog has no biases; a dog just loves you,” said Dr. Susan Sheehy, associate professor in the Daniel K. Inouye Graduate School of Nursing (GSN) at USU. A former dog owner, she’s always happy to see Goldie, a dog in the WRB Facility Dog Program who makes weekly visits to the USU campus.

Officially titled Air Force major due to his sponsorship by the Air Force to be part of the WRB Facility Dog Program, Goldie and his companion, Navy Vice Admiral Laura Lee, are two golden retrievers who are well known in the halls of USU.

“The program started before I arrived here,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Katherine Alguire, associate director of the Nurse Anesthetist Clinical Program in the GSN. She is currently the facility dogs’ handler while they’re visiting the University. “One of our mental health practitioners started bringing them just to help increase morale and give students and faculty an outlet. It can be very stressful here. Getting to see the dogs every week, or a few times a month, helps.”

The dogs originally only came to USU for special occasions -- during particularly stressful situations such as exams, suicide prevention seminars or a sexual assault response simulation exercise. Since then, though, they’ve become regular fixtures.

“As soon as the students came out from writing their reports, every student had to stop and hug [Goldie],” said Sheehy said when recalling when Goldie came to visit after a sexual assault response simulation. “When they were done, we took him to the standardized patients and actors and they were just all over the floor with him. It’s this kind of thing that’s cathartic for everybody.”

These visits are made possible by the generosity of the WRB Facility Dog Program. The program was started in 2007 by then-Navy Capt. (Dr.) David Bitonti, who served as director of Surgical Services at the National Naval Medical Center, and facility dog coordinator Patty Barry, business manager for the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Service. According to Amy O’Connor, a healthcare resolution specialist at WRNMMC, the WRB Facility Dog Program wants to share the dogs with as many people who can benefit from the gifts of a human-canine bond as possible.

Air Force Maj. Goldie, a golden retriever wearing a vest fashioned after Air Force Fatigues, is petted by Sarah Russell
Air Force Maj. Goldie, a member of the Walter Reed Bethesda Facility Dog Program, often visits the University to be a friendly face for students, like Sarah Russell, a Clinical Psychology graduate student in the F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine. (Image credit: Christopher Austin)

“For some people here it’s not a pleasant experience because they or someone they love is sick or wounded,” O’Connor said. “You can see the stress on people’s faces as they’re walking through the halls, but when they see these dogs, even if their day isn’t going well, you can see a smile develop on their faces. And even if it’s just for one minute in their life, they had a smile that day.”

The program’s six dogs make contact with approximately 1,700 people over the cumulative work week of 250 hours. This means that the dogs interact with about 11 people every hour.

Regardless the number, a brief encounter with one of these furry friends helps lighten the load of USU faculty, staff, and students as they propel military healthcare forward.