UPenn launches therapy dog program to assist America's heroes

You may notice more dogs on the street as you walk around University City, thanks to a new service dog program launched at the University of Pennsylvania that provides military members with a therapy dog.

The program, a partnership with the nonprofit, Warrior Canine Connection, describes its work as "mission-based trauma recovery," where Veterans get to interact with dogs from birth through adulthood, training them to act as service dogs for fellow service men and women.

Paula Crawford-Gamble, nurse and retired captain in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, who now leads Penn's Veterans Care Excellence Program, spearheaded the initiative at Penn. She has been with her service dog, Dollie, since September and says the difference in her health now compared to before she got Dollie is like night and day. 

"It's unbelievable how focused she is, and attentive. She is a natural. She has this intuition that is just far beyond," said Paula. "I have poor vision on my left side, so she walks on my left side and prevents me from bumping into certain things."

The therapy dogs learn to help military members with mental and physical disabilities, which are skills that Warrior Canine Connection Executive Director, Rick Yount, counts on veterans to teach.

"This program involves us teaching veterans how to train these dogs that are given to fellow veterans. It's the marriage of the human canine connection we talk about… with a mission," said Rick. 


Warrior Canine Connection was launched in 2008 and has a handful of locations around the country. Philadelphia is now one of those locations as the mission involves training dogs in a city environment, which is one that can be unsettling for veterans. 

"They have to learn to be able to navigate their own world, so when they come out here, there are cars, there are loud bangs, all those things. So, they have to learn how to support the dog and get out of their own mind," said one woman who works with WCC. 

Veteran families can get involved in training the service dogs through volunteering. Raina Stewart is from an Army family, and she works once a week with Byron, a service dog in training, and she says it reaps benefits. 

"It brings me lot of comfort and happiness, especially when I'm having a really stressful day. I can just go and work with Byron and bond with him. It makes me happy to know that while I'm getting what I need out of it, it's working toward someone else getting the help they need as well. The more training I do with this dog, the more prepared he'll be," said Raina. 

Each service dog goes through two years worth of training and by the time they graduate, they are expected to know 70 to 90 commands. After graduation, the dogs will train with their assigned human for a couple of weeks once a proper match has been found. 

For anyone who would like to pitch in and volunteer, go to the Warrior Canine Connection website here