Pause for PAWS: Wounded warriors relieve stress with K9 compassion

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- For anyone who knows me, it's no surprise I love animals. Specifically, I love dogs, and even more specifically, I love my dogs as though they are my children. I have no intention of ever having a human child, so my three- and four-legged children are my pride and joy.

I also love giving back to our community. It sounds cheesy, but it's true. Anytime I can combine my two loves, I jump on it. At my last duty station, I volunteered as a bather at a mill-dog rescue. When we arrived and I learned the opportunities at animal shelters and rescues were significantly less abundant, I was at a loss.

Then, I saw it -- "Pets and Warriors."

"What is this?" I asked myself. I quickly found out through the Red Cross office at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center this program is a way for me and other pet owners to provide a bit of home to wounded warriors and family members by bringing our fur-kids through the hospital.

Eighteen obedience classes, Canine Good Citizenship certification, a thorough veterinary exam and background check (for humans) later, and my husband and I celebrated Spanky's first day on the job as a morale pet for the Red
Cross.

Spanky took his job seriously. He was petted, kissed and loved by staff members, patients and visiting family members and friends. He went room to room, human escorts in tow, laying on beds, in laps. Anywhere there was a free hand to pet him, he went to fulfill that hand's need.

As the then 7-year-old Boston terrier pranced through the halls at LRMC showing off his brand new little Red Cross volunteer scarf, it hit me. I'm not just giving back to my fellow service members and their families. They're giving back to me, too.

We've done a number of visits since that first day, and every time he parades down the halls, I'm reminded of just how important it is for someone to have unconditional love to help them through hard times.

For the LRMC staff, Spanky and the other pets offer a small break from what could be a really hard day; maybe they've had a difficult patient, maybe they're feeling helpless at providing comfort to someone in pain. The list of difficulties goes on, but when the team of Red Cross volunteers (two- and four-legged) comes through the door, it gives them just a minute to forget the troubles they may be going through and just laugh and bask in the joy of dog licks and cat purrs.

Then, there are the patients. We've listened to stories of their own pets and how much they miss them. We've heard about how many of their friends have or had Bostons and how those big ears brought so much chaos and personality to their lives. We've talked to them on Christmas and heard about what their families are doing at home before they visit the hospital, and we've talked to them about what they would've done on New Year's if they hadn't been in the hospital.

So often, there's an air of loneliness when you enter a patient's room. There are times we're the first ones to come in who aren't there to check vitals, insert an IV or offer some form of painful physical therapy. Those are the necessary evils of rehabilitation, and the staff at LRMC are some of the finest medical professionals around, but at times, even their efforts to comfort just can't stand up to the unspoken consolation provided by a wagging tail (or stub, in Spanky's case) and big dog eyes.

Unfortunately, we can't go as often as we'd like. The full schedules of two senior NCOs, TDYs and unforeseen scheduling conflicts cause us to only have the ability to go a few times a month. I look forward to every visit as if it's the first, though. For my husband and me, sharing some of Spanky's personality is as therapeutic for us as it is for the patients.

For Spanky, though I don't speak dog, the evidence of his happiness is apparent through his actions. He excitedly hops on laps, calmly lays next to patients, and sits with kids, smiling his big Boston smile, sporting his small crimson neck piece.

Though we can't share him as often as we'd like, other PaWS volunteers are active program participants. Toby, a high-fiving Yorkie, for example, is well-known among long-term patients and staff members. His human, Cindy, escorts him through the different wards regularly. Bubba, a very handsome miniature poodle, and Jack, a teacup poodle, are also program veterans, willing to step in anywhere a human needs to pet away their bad day. We've got large breeds, small breeds and even cats.

That's not to say program coordinators aren't always looking for more bundles of furry joy to share in the experience. If your pet has the right temperament and is looking for a "job" with the Red Cross, contact the American Red Cross PaWS chairwoman, Leah McCracken, at leah.mccracken@redcross.org.

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"Such short little lives our pets have to spend with us, and they spend most of it waiting for us to come home each day. It is amazing how much love and laughter they bring into our lives and even how much closer we become with each other because of them." - John Grogan, "Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog."