Friday, August 22, 2008

Rico the pit bull mix is bursting with adolescent energy when Army Capt. Lawrence Minnis leads him into Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

But as soon as Capt. Minnis reaches for a treat jar, the dog sits before being told.

Rico is learning to sit and walk on a leash, but the training also is for Capt. Minnis - one of the first service members in rehabilitation at Walter Reed to take courses in dog training and behavior offered by the Washington Humane Society.

The courses are to give service members a strong enough foundation for a future career with dogs, but that’s not the only benefit.

Just spending time with animals is therapeutic. And those who participate give the dogs a break from the shelter and teach them skills that will make them more adoptable.

The idea for the program began when Lisa LaFontaine, the Washington Humane Society’s president and chief executive officer, heard last summer that volunteer dog-walkers were bumping into soldiers from Walter Reed, which is just a few blocks up the street. The soldiers were drawn to the dogs, so Miss LaFontaine saw the perfect opportunity.

“One of my real beliefs in this work is that in addition to adopting animals and protecting animals from cruelty, it’s important to have programs that bring people and animals together in meaningful ways,” she said.

There’s now a waiting list for the program, says Sara Meisinger, who oversees an occupational therapy placement program for returning service members in rehabilitation at Walter Reed. Her own certified therapy dog, Sky, was napping beneath the desk, and she understands the pull that dogs have on people.

“People are in my office all day when she’s here,” she said.

Kevin Simpson, who teaches the course, said student enthusiasm is obvious - they come early and stay late.

Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Foster, 25, from Wichita, Kan., calls the course “an awesome opportunity.”

Sgt. Foster, whose right leg was amputated below the knee, says he’d like to eventually work with special-needs children.

“Children with special needs will be able to relate to me better than a person who’s whole,” he said.

“They’ll see me and think, ‘He’s got only one leg and he did it.’”

Capt. Minnis, a 27-year-old Washington native who is recovering from an infection contracted while he was serving, says working with a big, energetic dog like Rico is even physically therapeutic.

Being able to react to Rico’s leash-pulling helps him see how much stronger he is now than when he was ill. “It goes along with the therapy I’m doing - it’s another challenge,” he said.

Capt. Minnis is considering the possibility of opening a dog-training school or other dog-related business.

He says that training dogs reinforces what he’s learned about working with people.

“Being an officer in the Army, you have to be a leader,” he said. “You have to do the same thing there - motivate them, get them to do what they need to do and enjoy it.”

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