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Ask a Dog: Inside the Life of a Walter Reed Facility Dog

Image of Ask a Dog: Inside the Life of a Walter Reed Facility Dog. One of the stars of the facility dog program is Corpsman Luke, named for Saint Luke, the patron saint of doctors. This energetic, 5-year-old German Shepherd is “spectacular,” according to his handler and “mom,” Amy O’Connor, the program’s project manager and a licensed social worker. (Credit: Janet A. Aker, MHS Communications)

When you’re in pain, need comfort, or just a reason to smile, time spent with a furry friend may be just what the doctor ordered.

The facility dog program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center offers all of this and more to their patients and staff. The program provides interactive care with innovative animal assisted interventions to reduce stress and increase overall feelings of well-being.

Facility dogs are trained to be service dogs for the disabled but learn new therapy skills that enable them to work in military hospitals and clinics. WRNMMC facility dogs make frequent visits to patients and staff in the inpatient and outpatient areas of the hospital to give comfort and support to those in need.

One of the stars of the program is Corpsman Luke, named for Saint Luke, the patron saint of doctors. This energetic, five-year-old German shepherd is “spectacular,” according to his handler and “mom,” Amy O’Connor, the program’s project manager and a licensed social worker.

“He never tires out,” she said. “He is the happiest heart coming into the hospital every day. We say that he’s like a cup of coffee. He boosts people's moods and makes them smile.”

Let’s hear more from Luke himself:

Q: Hi, Luke! Can you tell us more about what you do for your job?

I love my job! I’m so grateful to add positivity to the patient and staff experience at Walter Reed.

I am a member of the patient and staff experience team and work with my fellow facility dogs and human handlers to visit staff and patients daily. We go to wellness meetings, visit with families, and attend ceremonies. Our goal is to bring smiles to the human faces and happiness to their hearts.”

I typically work about an hour and a half, twice a day. Facility dogs need lots of rest. I don’t need as much as others though, so I can work for longer if I’m needed.

I make a walk through the hospital with my handlers. Then, I might visit the intensive care unit, or the pediatric infusion clinic, and then go outside to play. I take a walk at lunchtime and come back in to make my rounds again in the afternoon.

Q: How do you help service members and patients heal?

I can be sort of silly sometimes. I walk around the hospital with my ears tall–I have big ears–and my tail wagging. We visit places like the ICU and wards. Humans pet me and talk to me. I also do tricks to make people laugh. Mom told me that laughing can make humans feel better. The ICU staff members give me treats, tell me stories and take my picture. I am very good at picture taking.

Q: How do you improve mental wellness?

Mental wellness is a top priority for the facility dog team. By simply being present and visiting the staff, patients, and their families, we comfort them, make them smile and support improving their overall health and well-being. Our service members, patients, and staff are at the center of all we do.

I love to help service members. And because I'm a German shepherd, some service members are drawn to me, particularly ones that are energetic and fun. Sometimes it's hard for me to relax. But I can remember going into a service member's room, laying down, and spending time with him.

Q: Why do you think the facility dog program so important?

The program is important because it can cheer patients up in many different ways. When someone comes to the hospital for care, they lose a lot of control. When I come in their room, I give them control back. I ask nothing of them. I am there for them. I'm there to pick up a ball or for a friendly tail wag. I'm giving of myself. That’s what makes the facility dogs so special.

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