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GSSWGraduate School of Social Work

Warrior Canine Connection – A Valuable New Internship Opportunity

November 16, 2016
by Eric Tausch, MSW student

Eric Tausch

I spent 25 years as an active-duty U.S. Marine, including a couple of combat deployments and several disaster relief missions after devastating tsunamis, earthquakes, mudslides and hurricanes. I also spent most of those years feeling helpless as post-traumatic stress (PTS) stole my fellow Marines' jobs, families and lives once they returned. Now, however, a new MSW summer internship has given me the tools to make a difference for them.

I spent two months with Warrior Canine Connection (WCC), a nonprofit located at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. This internship, available exclusively to GSSW students, equipped me to implement and expand a distinctive service dog training program that thousands of active and veteran military members credit for effectively treating their PTS and acute traumatic brain injury (TBI). Working alongside clinicians, scholars and professional dog trainers at leading national treatment and research facilities, I personally witnessed remarkable improvements in each of about 100 clients I worked with or observed over 10 weeks. For a few clients, dramatic changes occurred in only an hour.

Guided by professional dog trainers and social workers—including 2013 GSSW graduate Allison Proctor and Emily Mittleman, who graduated in 2015—WCC clients succeed through its unique Mission Based Trauma Recovery program that enlists their help to train service dogs for fellow veterans. Clients must convince the dogs to perceive the world as a safe place. In the process, the clients learn to conquer their own fears by shifting their focus from themselves to helping the dogs succeed in myriad social and environmental conditions. This innovative program model makes it possible for each dog to help about 70 veterans during the dog's standard two-year training period, in contrast to typical programs in which one trained dog is provided to assist one veteran.

Designed in 2008 in Palo Alto, California, by licensed social worker and dog trainer Rick Yount, WCC's clinically based program earned Defense Department endorsement in 2009. The program is now integrated into top military hospitals and holds a key position at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, the country's premier institution for cutting-edge TBI and PTS treatment, research and education.

My internship added multiple skill sets to my social work "toolkit:" individual and group Mission Based Trauma Recovery implementation; information about TBI and PTS symptoms and empirical treatments; service dog training, behavior and healthcare; and organization operations and administration, including kennel operations.

I also learned the value of bolstering client success and retention through collaborations that combine traditional and complementary treatments like yoga, acupuncture, music, art, virtual reality and—of course—animal-assisted interventions. I was pleased to see Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper's endorsement of a service dog training pilot program last year aimed at treating PTS and TBI among the state's veterans, as well as the passage of the national Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016, which mandates that service dog training and other complementary approaches be investigated in depth to combat the nation's opioid dependence. These developments are indicative of rapidly mounting evidence for interventions, not only for TBI and PTS, but also as the future's preferred treatments for safely and effectively addressing a spectrum of conditions.

In closing, I want to express my gratitude to the nonprofit organization Wall Street Rocks for their generous support of my work at WCC and of other programs benefitting military veterans nationwide. I encourage you to learn more about Warrior Canine Connection or contact me at eric.tausch@du.edu.

Eric is earning GSSW's Animal-Assisted Social Work Certificate while completing the Organizational Leadership and Policy Practice concentration. Learn more about the Institute for Human-Animal Connection.