Zack is unlike any therapist you’ve ever met. Calmly he walks through a training ground while automatic weapons and cannons fire in the background. Afterwards he is greeted by teams of camouflaged soldiers and offers his golden head for petting You see Zack is a golden retriever therapy dog and he is one of two dogs preparing for a mission in Iraq to help provide stress relief to deployed soldiers.

Provided to the Army for combat deployments from VetDogs, a NewYork-based nonprofit that also gives specially trained canines to disabled veterans, Zack and his black Labrador buddy Butch are being deployed overseas to help draw out soldiers who would not normally see a therapist.

Soldiers are “built to be strong, so we go to them,” said Capt. Andrea Lohmann who’s deploying with Zack and Butch and about 50 members of the 98th Medical Company.

The animals act as “icebreakers” for the therapists and psychiatrists who walk through bases and check in on soldiers. And for many of those far from home, the mere sight of a wagging tail can lift a soldiers 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 who personally saw stress-relief dogs in action on his last deployment to Iraq in 2007-08.

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.

When screening for potential therapy dogs, VetDog instructor Valerie Cramer says that they look for canines that adapt well in different settings, are friendly with strangers, play when it’s appropriate and relax in one-on-one therapy.

Cramer 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.

All her work pays off when she hears about her dogs helping soldiers in harms way.
“Its 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.”