How one dog changed the lives of local veterans
Soldier, a gold Labrador retriever who lives at the Missouri Veterans' Home in Mexico, has been saved before. Now, it's his turn to help save others.
The two-year-old was adopted from an animal shelter in Fulton and put through the Missouri Department of Corrections Puppies for Parole program in Jefferson City, where prisoners working in the program train dogs to be therapy dogs. Soldier came to MVH in November, 2011, changing the lives of many.
Activity Director, Teresa Ames, and three veterans, Ed Parks, Dwight Hudspegh and Jerry Green, met recently with the Mexico Ledger to talk about their pet. Ames is Soldier's in-house trainer and the three veterans are just a few who have been touched by his presence.
Here is their story
"We brought Soldier on board to make this facility feel more home-like to the veterans that we serve," Ames explained, as Soldier laid on the floor close at her feet. The dog lives at the facility 24-7, offering love, affection and comfort for those living there and staff. When commanded, he will walk, sit, and even mourn with the veterans in need.
The veterans selected Soldier at 10 months old from among other strays housed at the Fulton Dog Pound, and from there he went straight into the prison training program, where he stayed three months.
Since being at the home, Ames said Soldier "has been worth more than his weight in gold." The veterans gave the canine his name.
Veteran Ed Parks walks Soldier daily.
"When I started walking Soldier, he tried to get away, but now he wants to walk the pace you want and he's more obedient. If you tighten his leash and say something to him, he will straighten up real quick," Parks said. At 80 pounds, Parks said Soldier can be a handful, and at times a little lazy. "Sometimes when he's tired of walking, he will raise his head and give you that look, like he's asking permission to stop. He likes to walk, but he also likes to lay down too. I really appreciate my time with him."
Veteran Hudspegh, who raised animals as a youth and adult, agrees.
"He's such a great dog, that makes you feel good everyday," he said. "When he comes around, you feel something going on. I mean, some people have Lassie. Some have Old Yeller. We have Soldier."
Hudspegh said Soldier is not selfish with his love. "Not only does he share his affection with veterans, he shows the same affection to their families when they come in, especially the little kids. When they come in, they always ask, 'where's Soldier?'"
Ames and veteran Jerry Green say Soldier has another very special gift. He can sense when a veteran is passing away, and when they are dealing with pain and grief.
"Soldier is very smart and intelligent (above anything I've ever seen) and he's loved by so many," Green said as he recalled a recent incident, involving another patient, who was mourning the death of his wife. "I was up upstairs and Soldier went with me and was just walking around. We had stopped and were just sitting there, when he lifted up his head and started looking up and down the hallway, like he heard something. He went down and peeped in a couple of doors, and there was this guy (veteran) crying because he wanted to go to his wife's funeral. Soldier put his paws on the guy and starting whimpering and whining. The guy pulled his covers back so Soldier could get up and snuggle with him. He needed a little love. The next morning, he was still there. Solder didn't want to leave, because the guy needed him. I felt like crying for the compassion he showed that man. Soldier is a tremendous, incredible dog that does things you wouldn't expect. It's just unbelievable."
Ames said the veterans, staff and their visitors have had comforting times with Soldier.
"One day, as I was coming from a meeting, Soldier made a dash to one patient's room and got into bed with him (after getting Ames' verbal approval) and stayed with him about two hours. When I tried to get him out, a member of the family begged for him to stay, and praised how he had made them feel at ease about what was going on. That says a lot about Soldier's presence and abilities. He really makes a big difference for our veterans," Ames said.
Research done on what pets do for the elderly VA patients such as Green, Parks and Hudspegh, shows what therapy dogs can do for the person's well-being.
"They bring such comfort," Ames explained. "We have veterans that have opened up and are now more active because of Soldier. He has made a big difference in their lives and makes the facility feel more like home."
Green agreed saying, "Soldier is above any animal I've ever been around, and loved by so many."
"And he loves to give hugs," Parks said.
While strolling the halls with Ames, Soldier peeps in each room, like a Guardian Angel.
"We've had a lot of good times with Soldier. He's the best dog ever," Green reiterated.
It's no surprise that the doe-eyed creature has won so many hearts. Therapy dogs are trained to soothe pain, grief, fear, and protect their owners from danger. They can also draw out even the most isolated personality and help traumatized veterans overcome emotional numbness.
Ames said teaching the dogs' commands helps develop a patient's ability to communicate and to be assertive. Research has accumulating evidence that bonding with dogs can help lower a person's stress level and temporarily bring some normalcy back to veterans who might be struggling.
"Soldier's job is to make the veterans feel better — a job he was born do to," Ames praised. The Veterans' Home also has a cat, named Smoky, that offers the same amount of love and affection. "Except he's not like Soldier. Smoky doesn't like to be touched when he's not in the mood," Green added.