COLUMBIA — Opie knows that he’s done something right.
With his eyes closed, tongue lolling and his tail wagging slowly back and forth, the sandy brown, wiry-haired Great Pyrenees mix accepts his rewards for mastering the night's tricks. He lets Trista Corbin scratch behind his ears and ruffle the bristly hair along his spine as she croons “good boy.”
Opie and Corbin are learning basic obedience skills as part of the first phase of the Veterans and Shelter Dogs program, which started in September. The study, conducted by MU nursing professor Rebecca Johnson, pairs veterans recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with shelter dogs from the Central Missouri Humane Society.
“The goal is to help these veterans readjust to post-deployment life in their family and in their community, and to help the dogs become more adoptable,” Johnson said.
Corbin, one of seven veterans currently participating in phase one, served in the Army National Guard for seven years as a combat medic and has done one tour of duty in Iraq.
“My own dog, a Jack Russell terrier, has helped me with sleeping and noise issues since I’ve been back,” Corbin said. “I was interested in helping train dogs to help others go through what I went through — separation anxiety, and being alone without a support system.”
The Veterans and Shelter Dogs program is divided into three phases — basic obedience training, mentorship to families who adopt the dogs and training as service dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
During the first phase of the program, the veterans teach dogs basic obedience skills for 24 weeks. Dogs participate in this training for four weeks, unless they are adopted. If they are adopted, they are replaced with new dogs from the shelter.
During the basic obedience classes, which take place twice a week, the dogs and their handlers train in two separate sessions for about 20 minutes.
“It’s exciting to watch the dogs’ progress over the evening and from one obedience training class to the next,” project coordinator Charlotte McKenney said. “It’s incredible how quickly they make strides in their behavior.”
Judy Steiner, an instructor at the Columbia Canine Sports Center and a retired nurse, helps the veterans teach the dogs basic obedience skills during the first phase of the program.
“During the first group, the guys shared information with each other and really became a support group for each other,” Steiner said. “It was such a positive hour in their life.”
The study is conducted through the MU Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, which conducts several research studies to show the benefits of putting humans and animals together.
Johnson devised the project after seeing the number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and reading about the high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The research we’ve done with people and animals showed that potentially it would be beneficial for these veterans to work with the shelter dogs,” she said.
In order to participate in the program, the dogs from the Humane Society must be at least 1-year-old and pass a nationally recognized behavior test to rule out aggression.
Since the start of the first obedience training session in January, more than 100 dogs have been trained, Johnson said.
“So many of our dogs have been getting adopted,” Corbin said. “And besides just being cute dogs, I like to think that what I’m doing here — teaching them sit, stay and not to pull on the leash — will make them more adoptable.”
And, it seems, the benefits of the program are on both ends of the leash.
“We’ve seen some really great things,” Johnson said. “One veteran told us he hadn’t felt anything since coming back until he began working with the dogs.”