Therapy dog touches the hearts of Airmen at the 163rd Attack Wing

courtesy photo

Therapy dogs are a common sight in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes and disaster areas but are not normally found at work on military bases.  Jax, a German shepherd who is completing training as a certified therapy dog, is making his rounds through squadron work spaces at the 163rd Attack Wing on March Air Reserve Base. It is not the typical scene you find at work although it is a welcomed change at the Wing.  Jax belongs to David Cunningham, the 163rd Attack Wing Director of Psychological Health (DPH).

“After a veterinarian visit I happened to bring him out to the unit and the response was incredible just in the short time he was here,” said Cunningham, “We talked about it and spoke to the command about his coming to the wing as a therapy dog. He has two observations left to complete his certification.”

Cunningham added “As far as we know, the 163rd is the first unit to have a full time therapy dog.”

Jax has been visiting the unit since October 2015. His visits are limited to two buildings at a time due to the time it takes for interaction.

“One, it allows me to engage with them on a one on one level but it also opens that door for their willingness to approach me,” said Cunningham. “If they have something going on it increases their awareness of who I am. Jax is the middle man and a bridge.”

Once they interact with him they start talking about what is going on with their family playing ball this weekend and other times there may be something more serious going on. It allows me the inside road to let me know there is something we can address and help keep them operational.

Cunningham finds Jax brings out people from their work centers. He often finds people who may not necessarily like dogs but they respect Jax and open up to him.

“My favorite day was when the chaplain and I went over to the 452nd Air Mobility Wing pilots to pick up a donation left there for the chaplains,” Cunningham shared. “We walked in and everyone looked with stoic faces but when they saw Jax they were a bunch of kids making a circle with him on the floor. That’s when I realized how much of a big impact he can have as far as interactions and opening those doors for me to access more people and get them to interact with me more frequently.”

Jax has been requested by commanders to come out to their units. He is making his rounds at the wing’s geographically separated unit (GSU) locations such as the 147th Combat Communications Squadron in San Diego and Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville.

“I’m very fortunate as some places you may be able to bring therapy dogs on occasion but here Col. Hessheimer and Col. Ward have been totally on board with him,” said Cunningham. “They both understand the response you can get from animals and how people interact with Jax. They understand the impact they can have on people and the social wellbeing.”

There is a difference between therapy dog and service dog. The service dog provides services to an individual depending on their need such as PTSD, seizures, balancing, retrieval of items etc. A therapy dog serves others and is an outreach in taking care of everyone.

Jax is nine years old and was a military service dog. His story is unique as he was found at a shelter by Cunningham by mistake. He was retired and his handler had left him with a family member while deployed and they put him up for adoption.

“I was petting him and rolled him over to find a tattoo on his stomach,” said Cunningham. “I then looked up his handler on the national registry and found his owner to learn the story. Jax had once been in training to be a military working dog although did not pass due to a huge fear of thunder. His previous owner was close to Jax although he knew he had a good home.”

Jax is a hometown hero back in Oklahoma where Cunningham is from. One night while relaxing in his back yard an intruder hopped the wrong fence and Jax cornered him.

“Turns out Jax had cornered a fugitive for the police and still had it in him to be a working dog,” said Cunningham. “His story can be found online by the local news at KFOR, just type in Jax, police dog, Norman and the video will come up.”