Service dogs help wounded warriors get back on their feet, and stay there


As the Department of Defense continues its efforts to develop a uniform policy related to service dogs and therapy animals, the Office of Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy earlier this week hosted some of these specially-trained canines and learned more about what they can do to improve quality of life for Service members and veterans.

Southeastern Guide Dogs, located in Palmetto, Florida, has graduated 2,600 teams of visually-impaired humans and guide dogs since opening its doors in 1982.

Representatives from Southeastern Guide Dogs including wounded warriors and trainers and service dogs visited the Office of Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy earlier this week.

Representatives from Southeastern Guide Dogs including wounded warriors CPL Michael Jernigan and Shawn Mello, along with trainers Sam Agro and Judy Bordignon, and service dogs Bruce, Brittani and Harpo, visited the Office of Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy earlier this week. The Department of Defense is continuing its efforts to develop standardized policy for service dogs and therapy animals.

Many of the dogs are trained strictly as guide dogs to assist visually-impaired owners, but training for service dogs can be customized to meet the specific needs of a Service member or veteran. Retired Marine Corporal Michael Jernigan suffered serious injuries in an explosion in Iraq in 2004. He lost both eyes, and two-thirds of his cranium and his right hand were both reconstructed. Due to shrapnel wounds that fractured his left patella (kneecap), CPL Jernigan also found it difficult to walk in a straight line. He would tilt left, often falling off the curb and finding himself in the street. His dog, Brittani, is trained not just as a guide dog for his visual impairment; she also helps him keep his balance and walk in a straight line.

“She’s a confidence builder,” Jernigan said of his dog. “The confidence I lost when I lost my eyes, she’s built it back.”

Trainer Judy Bordignon and Bruce show off some commands.

Trainer Judy Bordignon and Bruce show off some commands. Bruce recently completed his training and will serve as a facility dog at a VA hospital.

Some Service members and veterans also rely on their service dogs instead of canes, crutches and other similar devices. Dog trainer Sam Agro told the story of a veteran who came to Southeastern Guide Dogs’ eight-day training workshop to meet his dog for the first time. The veteran relied heavily on a cane for support and balance, and was placing the same kind of physical pressure on his dog at the beginning of the course. By the end of the eight days, however, this veteran was balancing and walking easily while barely leaning on his dog’s harness; he turned his cane in to Sam at the end of the course.

“We keep that cane in our office,” Sam said, “to always remind us of the importance of what we are doing.”

Shawn Mello, a single leg amputee who served with SOCOM, also relies on his dog, Harpo, to help him compensate for the loss of his leg.

Shawn Mello, a single leg amputee, uses his dog, Harpo, for assistance with balance.

Shawn Mello, a single leg amputee, uses his dog, Harpo, for assistance with balance.

In addition to personal service dogs, dogs can also be trained to be facility dogs. These dogs have a single handler, who brings them to facilities such as hospitals and wounded warrior barracks to interact with the Service members and veterans who are there. Trainer Judy Bordignon introduced the group to one such dog named Bruce, who recently completed his training and will be going to a facility soon.

With many organizations around the country providing this resource to Service members and veterans, most of them free of charge, the Department of Defense and the Office of Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy, will continue their efforts to ensure that policy related to service dogs and therapy animals is applied uniformly and fairly so as many Service members and veterans as possible can benefit from these extraordinary companions.