As far as retrievers go, Zack is exceptionally impervious to distraction.
He calmly walked at his handler’s side through a training ground at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Friday while automatic weapons and cannons fired in the background.
He greeted teams of camouflaged soldiers and offered his golden head for petting.
Zack is one of two dogs preparing for a mission in Iraq with a medical company charged with providing stress relief for deployed soldiers. The canines’ job is to draw out soldiers who normally would avoid a therapist or to just give someone a break from thinking about a long tour in the desert.
Soldiers are “built to be strong, so we go to them,” said Capt. Andrea Lohmann of DuPont, who’s deploying with about 50 members of the 98th Medical Company and bringing a stress-relief black Labrador named Butch.
Zack and Butch will be the seventh and eighth stress-relief dogs provided to the Army for combat deployments since 2007 from VetDogs, a New York-based nonprofit that also gives specially trained canines to disabled veterans.
The animals are “icebreakers” for the therapists and psychiatrists who walk through bases and check in on soldiers. People who’ve worked with the pets say the sight of a wagging tail can lift a soldier’s spirits.
“They made contact with units that didn’t want anything to do with huggy, mental health people,” said Lohmann’s commander, Lt. Col. John Gourley.
Gourley saw stress-relief dogs in action on his last deployment to Iraq, in 2007-08. Labradors Budge and Bo became popular attractions on bases in and around Mosul, to the point that soldiers would look forward to their weekly visits.
“The biggest problem is the soldiers want to love on the dogs too much,” he said, describing the fistfuls of table scraps that would find their way to the pets.
It didn’t matter if the soldiers wanted to see a therapist. The dogs gave them a needed break, Gourley said.
“They’re therapeutic in their own way,” he said.
Iraqi dogs don’t provide that kind of outlet. They tend to run in feral packs, have mangy fur and are generally neglected because of customs that regard dogs as unclean. The Army tries to keep them away from bases out of concern that they could carry diseases, but some soldiers have adopted Iraqi dogs and even brought them home to the states.
VetDogs looks for canines that adapt well in different settings, are friendly with strangers, play when it’s appropriate and relax in one-on-one therapy, instructor Valerie Cramer said.
She screens the candidates while they’re puppies, taking them to firing ranges to get them accustomed to the sounds of guns and to an Air Force base to acquaint them with helicopters.
The work pays off when she hears about her dogs helping soldiers in harm’s way.
“It’s absolutely made a difference,” she said. “It’s just five minutes of relaxing, forgetting where you are. Dogs are universal. They bring out the relaxed, emotional part of us.”
Butch, Zack and two other dogs awaiting a military assignment arrived at Lewis-McChord last week. Lohmann took home Butch, where he joined her two other dogs.
“She plays like crazy,” Lohmann said. “We’ve already bonded.”
She hasn’t deployed with stress-relief dogs in the past but can see the value of bringing one.
“A dog can remind someone of home,” she said.
That could make the difference in steering someone to therapy, or in providing the break that makes a session with a psychiatrist unnecessary.
“Our goal is to reduce the stress. Our goal is to not have every single person in theater in therapy,” Lohmann said.