Even fried chicken couldn’t coax Legs to get down on his belly and crawl through the yellow tunnel to meet his buddy beckoning from the other end.
But that was OK with John Picray. The Navy veteran, who served two deployments to Iraq and flew strikes over Afghanistan, understands fear.
Besides, Picray, 26, knows how far Legs, 3, has come. This was only the third hour-long training session the two had shared. When the part-Airedale mutt started, he wouldn’t even sit and stay.
Now that trick is a yawner. He heels, jumps a low obstacle and comes to Picray’s calls.
Legs learned it all from his amateur trainer, Picray, in the Veterans & Shelter Dogs program, part of a study at the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
The program puts two potentially troubled souls together — abandoned dogs and veterans, like Picray, just home from war.
“When people come back from the military, they are changed,” said Rebecca Johnson, the MU professor and lead researcher of the veterans/shelter dog project.
“Many of them come home with some degree of post-traumatic stress,” she said. “Working with the dogs is relaxing and rewarding.”
The dogs, either abandoned or relinquished, all come from the Central Missouri Humane Society. The shelter, the only open-acceptance facility within a 150-mile radius of Columbia, takes in about 7,000 animals a year.
“During the summer, the busiest time, the shelter can take in 30 to 40 animals a day,” said former Marine Sgt. Nick Holman, who works for the Humane Society and volunteers with the veteran/dog project.
After too long in the shelter, dogs are euthanized. It’s hoped that training from the study makes them more desirable,
“That’s what we want, for them to be adopted and for the adoptions to stick,” Johnson said. “We want them to find a forever home. The idea here is healing through helping.”
Picray and Legs are part of a six-veteran group monitored for how their relationship affects them. Johnson and student researchers also follow a control group — six veterans who don’t work with dogs and six dogs that don’t get trainers. Also reviewed is the adoption rate for the dogs.
“It’s behavior science,” Johnson said. “We measure mood, anxiety, social adjustment.”
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