On a former dairy farm in Boyds, injured service members help train dogs for disabled veterans
In 1995, Rick Yount was a young social worker in Morgantown, West Virginia, managing foster care cases and going through “a bad time” in his personal life. So two friends bought him a golden retriever puppy for Christmas, named Gabriel in honor of the season. Every morning the dog would look so dejected that one day Rick finally relented and took Gabe with him. “I couldn’t say no to a puppy,” he says, “because of the way he was manipulating me.”
Shortly after arriving at work, Rick received an emergency call. An 11-year-old boy needed to be picked up and transported to a foster home. With Gabe still in the car, Yount recalls finding a child in deep distress: “He’s just sobbing, it’s heartbreaking. We couldn’t console him at all.” But after driving for a while, Rick noticed that “it kind of abruptly went quiet” in the back seat. “I looked in the rearview mirror. What I saw was this 4-month-old golden puppy with his head in this kid’s lap. And that’s how I discovered animal-assisted therapy. It started then.”
Now 57, Yount runs Warrior Canine Connection, a program that employs injured service members to help train dogs for disabled veterans. These service dogs perform a variety of practical tasks, from pulling wheelchairs and opening doors to calming nerves, but the process of training them produces another benefit—healing emotional wounds, not just physical ones.
The program’s training facility is a former dairy farm in Boyds—Yount also lives there with his wife and three young daughters—but Rick works closely with the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, where researchers are studying new treatments for the “invisible wounds of war,” such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After a dispute over management styles, Warrior Canine Connection briefly lost its contract with Walter Reed in 2017, but Yount says the program has been in good standing for the last year. As we’re talking, a golden retriever named Cooper lolls at our feet and a half-dozen other dogs bound playfully around a pen outside.
“The healing power of the human-animal bond is very powerful,” Yount says. So is the “warrior ethos, the core value system in the military community,” which motivates service members to serve and support each other. Warrior Canine Connection is “a good fit” because it taps into both impulses, he says. The vets who participate are “doing it for a fellow vet, they’re not thinking about themselves. It’s mission, mission, mission.”
Rick’s own mission began in Ambridge, a “very blue collar” town in Western Pennsylvania where his father worked in a steel mill. He was the first person in his family to attend college, but he dropped out after arguing with an English teacher and found work helping “very delinquent young men” who had failed out of other treatment programs. “It was my first social work job,” he tells me. “It was like a calling, I found that I had a knack for that.”
He moved to Morgantown for a relationship and finished his degree at West Virginia University before that day a puppy changed his life. At first, Yount’s focus was using dogs to help troubled children, like the boy in the back seat of his car, but then two of Gabe’s offspring became service dogs for wounded veterans, including a quadriplegic who had fought in Vietnam. At the same time, a growing number of service members were coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with searing psychological scars.
“The idea just kind of jumped in my head,” Yount says. “Who better to train service dogs for veterans than fellow vets? For every symptom of PTSD, I could find a real tangible way how the training of dogs could be used to mitigate it.”
I ask for examples. “Emotional numbing,” he quickly replies. “To train a dog you have to sound happy, or at least pretend to sound happy. So that process of reinforcing and praising the dog is pulling out positive emotions from somebody whose [feelings] have been blunted because of their trauma.
“Isolation is killing so many veterans,” Yount continues. “They don’t get out, their homes become a bunker. Training a service dog requires that you teach it to be comfortable in malls, grocery stores, everywhere. If you take a dog out in public and try to isolate yourself, you can’t, because the dog is such a natural magnet that they create these social interactions.”
Rick moved to California in 2004 to continue his experimental work at a veterans’ hospital and formally started Warrior Canine Connection four years later. He tells the story of an early participant, a hard-bitten Marine who was so traumatized that he refused to speak. The vet sat in the same chair every day, so one morning Rick took the seat next to him and brought along an 8-month-old puppy named Vegas, Gabe’s grandson. The dog “starts nudging him on his leg” but the Marine turns away. Vegas goes “back and forth four or five times” and finally “puts his paws on the Marine’s leg and gives him a kiss on the cheek. The Marine didn’t smile, but he almost did.”
Not only did the vet wind up training Vegas, but he also recovered enough to get married, have a family and earn a master’s degree in social work. “People were treating him as a consumer of mental health services, and we treated him like a contributor,” Yount recalls. “Sometimes you have to trick people into treatment in the most kind, loving way.”
Yount moved back here nine years ago to be closer to Walter Reed. Warrior Canine Connection trains about 70 service dogs a year, with more than 500 vets playing some role in that process. Gabe lived to 15, and when it was time to put him down, Rick invited many of the vets who had cycled through the training program to pay the dog a final visit. “Each of them spent about 20 minutes on the floor with him, saying goodbye,” Yount says. “Then Gabe looked me straight in the eye, he was fully conscious, and it was like he was saying to me, ‘You’d better not forget what I taught you.’ ” He hasn’t.
Steve Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University and lives with a sweet chocolate Lab named Ella. Send ideas for future columns to firstname.lastname@example.org.