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Puppies with a purpose

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

​A wall in the vocational services classroom at Oregon State Hospital is decorated with the colorful wooden bones painted with the names of 32 dogs trained by OSH patients to help people in the community with PTSD or mobility issues.

Service Dog names painted on wooden bones

Wooden bones painted with the names of service dogs.

One of those bones belongs to Baxter, a black Labrador retriever, who was matched with Peter Greene in November 2021. The two quickly bonded, leading Greene to rename Baxter, Booker after his favorite Phoenix Suns basketball player, Devin Booker.

“To understand the impact Booker's had on my life, you have to understand how messed up my life has been," said Greene, a Gulf War veteran. “I rarely left the house. I hated the world and hated myself."

Greene said his PTSD went undiagnosed for 20 years and side effects from exposure to chemicals during the war has led to other complications. While medications and therapy helped him on his treatment journey, he said he wasn't living a full life.

That started to change after he saw a fellow veteran with a service dog.

“I saw in him the calm, peace and confidence that I was lacking for a long time due to PTSD, so I asked about the dog and started researching service dog organizations," Greene said.

His search led him to Joys of Living Assistance Dogs (JLAD), a Salem-based nonprofit agency that trains and places service dogs with people who need them. The agency has partnered with OSH since 2018 to provide patients the opportunity to work as dog trainers and prepare animals for service positions.

Currently, three OSH patients are helping two JLAD dogs – Magic, a 9-month-old Labrador retriever and Jasper, a 14-month-old, a cross of a golden retriever and Labrador retriever – prepare for their service certification.

Service dog candidate Qunita

Twelve week old Quinta, a service dog candidate.

The dog training program is one of several options that offer OSH patients job training and wages. Other areas for patient employment include jobs in the hospital's greenhouse, landscaping, groundskeeping, environmental services, kitchens, coffee shop, library, retail market, groundskeeping, basic assembly or bench work and assisting in the woodshop making Adirondack furniture that is sold in the community. Patients apply and interview for the jobs – just as they would in the community.

“We focus on transferable skills and developing essential skills that will help people be successful in the community. That includes showing up on time, being part of a team and dealing with the challenges of working on a team, problem solving and effective communication" said Doug Anderson, OSH director of Vocational, Educational, Spiritual Care, Peer Recovery and Native Services.

It's not all work. Sometimes, there are opportunities for play like last month when a pack of 8-week-old black Labrador retrievers visited the hospital's training program. The socialization visits help the pups develop their senses – a skill necessary for them to distinguish changes in their clients' body chemistry and environment, St. Peter said.

During the visit, patients wrangled the playful pups and taught them basic skills that led to a reward of kibble – like “sit" and “stay." Those basic skills are the start of their future helping others.

By the time the dogs complete their training, they'll learn more than 90 training cues and behaviors to provide mobility and PTSD help to their human, said Michaella Morris, OSH training and development specialist. Training tasks range from pushing door buttons, getting help, fetching meds, interrupting nightmares and picking items off the floor. 

Morris, who is a certified dog trainer, evaluates Magic and Jasper's daily progress and recommends lessons to help the handlers address the dogs' training deficiencies. She also encourages the dog handlers to take their own notes about the dogs' progress and suggest next steps for their training.

“For the patients, there is a lot of accountability if the dog is not successful in an exercise," Morris said. “For example, the patient has to think about what they can change or do in that moment to help the dog understand the exercise and be successful. The program teaches them how to problem solve and get the dog ready for certification. They develop goals for the training. It translates to their own goals of recovery and the steps they need to take."

The dogs in the OSH training program stay overnight at the hospital Monday through Thursday on a patient unit. The extra socialization helps hone their skills of learning how to help those with PTSD symptoms, said Joy St. Peter, JLAD's founder and director.

“While the dogs are here, they're also picking up on what the patient needs," St. Peter said. “It's pretty amazing to watch that happen with the dogs and patients."

For Greene, Booker often provides help before he even knows he needs it.

“I had an incident when traveling where I had to call and talk to the airline at the airport. It was stressful and all of a sudden, he put his paws in my lap and started licking my face," Greene said. “He broke that cycle I was in, and I wasn't upset anymore. I could talk to the airline on the phone and say what I needed to say. Sometimes, he knows I'm upset before I know I'm upset, and he'll come and interrupt."

Knowing the dogs are helping others in the community is a great feeling, said Ashley Rokusek, an OSH manual arts instructor who has worked with the training program since 2019.

“It's also rewarding to see the patients in recovery committed to this job," Rokusek said. “You get to see them grow in their recovery journey by attending work and showing up to work and doing something that will help someone else."

The OSH dog training program is a way for the hospital to reflect its values of hope and recovery back into the community, Morris said.

“The hospital supports hope and recovery," she said. “These dogs are providing hope and recovery to someone in the community." ​

Puppy visit video link

A video of a recent visit by JLAD puppies is available here.​



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