Therapy dog helps soldiers cope with stress
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After three deployments to Iraq and three to Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Dennis Swols is prone to bouts of anger. He is unable to really talk about his time on the battlefield.
But as Swols sits in a clinic at Fort Bragg, his hand drops to the furry head beside him. His mood brightens. Settled at his feet, Lexy, a 5-year-old German shepherd, gives Swols a few moments of distraction.
It's her job. And, according to Swols, she's good at it.
"I have a hard time talking to people about my deployments and everything," says Swols, who took part in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the march into Baghdad in 2003. Now he's been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress.
"I just pet Lexy. Or I'm just sitting here and we won't talk about deployments, we'll just (talk) about the dogMy day is better every time I come in."
For psychiatrist Christine Rumayor, Lexy is a partner and a living, breathing medical tool. The dog can calm a patient and make a therapy appointment a little more enjoyable.
Animal therapy is used in only a few other Army installations, including Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. A small number of dogs like Lexy are being used almost as co-therapists. Others routinely work as service animals and are often used for animal-assisted therapy. That includes visits to patients in the hospitals.
Lexy went through about 2 1/2 years of training before she was able to pin on her rank she's a lieutenant colonel and become certified as Fort Bragg's only therapy dog.
The Army is struggling to address stress disorders and mental health problems brought on by more than a decade of war. One of the biggest hurdles is getting soldiers to seek treatment. Lexy, it turns out, is particularly good at that.
Rumayor, who wrote the Fort Bragg policy that allows her to use Lexy in her practice, said there was resistance at first.
"You don't want everybody to think they can just bring their dog to work," she said.
Walking around the base, she uses Lexy to attract soldiers, then draws them into conversation.
"Stigma is one of the huge things the military is trying super hard to overcome, and Lexy is probably the biggest asset I have in overcoming that stigma," Rumayor said. "There's nothing better than coming to an appointment where you get to have a warm fuzzy thing that you get to pet all the time.
"People don't want to come in the door. When they see her coming in, it makes them want to come in the door."
Critical thinking challenge: How does Lexy help soldiers get help?