Warrior Canine Connection

The Healing Power of Puppies


Canine Can-Do: The Healing Power of Puppies

When WarriorCanineConnection.ORG Founder and Executive Director RickYount was gifted with Gabe, an eight-week-old golden retriever for Christmas, he had no idea his adorable new companion would change the trajectory of his life and thousands of others. Yount, a licensed social worker, often let Gabe tag along to work. One day, Yount was tasked with removing a child from an abusive home and placing him in foster care. It was a heartbreaking experience, Yount recalls. 


Then something amazing happened. “The boy was sobbing inconsolably in the backseat of my car. And, about five minutes into the drive he went suddenly quiet,” Yount recalls. “I looked in my rearview mirror and saw this little golden pup with his head on the boy’s lap and it was just—wow.” 


That experience inspired Yount to certify Gabe as a therapy dog, and it was through this process he became familiar with the training methods and applications of animal-assisted therapy and intervention for people experiencing trauma and suffering post-traumatic stress. 


Building on his years of making therapy visits with Gabe, in 2004, Yount began Golden Rule Assistance Dogs in Morgantown, West Virginia. Golden Rule was modeled on a program that offered positive feedback for incarcerated teens by teaching them to train service dogs. Yount applied a similar model to his social service work with the foster care system.


“I realized I could use the training and service dogs as a way to teach parenting skills to teens who identify as high risk before they have kids, and that might be the way to break, or help break, the cycle of abuse.”


From there, it wasn’t long before pawprints would lead Yount and his wife, Molly Morelli, to create Warrior Canine Connection in 2011. Two canine graduates of the Golden Rule program were placed with armed services veterans. At the time, there were limited options for veterans to be paired with service dogs, despite the extreme need, as vets were returning home to the U.S. following tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.


“Taking care of one another under the harshest conditions is a core value embedded in the military community, known as the ‘Warrior Ethos,’” says Yount. “And I thought having veterans training dogs for veterans could provide a sense of mission, even for those who were removed from battle because of their wounds.”


In July 2008, Yount and three of Gabe’s grand-pups arrived at the Menlo Park division of the Veteran’s Affairs Palo Alto Healthcare System. There, in the men’s trauma and recovery inpatient treatment center, the three puppies gave wounded veterans a new purpose. In learning to train the puppies to successfully navigate the world to help other warriors, the veterans had to overcome many of their own fears and post-traumatic stress (PTSD) related triggers, like crowded metro cars, or slamming dumpster doors. 


“Cognitive behavioral therapists work really hard to get veterans to challenge these triggers and intrusive thoughts,” says Yount. “And I discovered that we could do that real time when the noise was happening. I was coaching them and getting them to respond quickly for the sake of training the dog. We’re getting them to stay out of those dark thoughts and stay centered and aware and available for the dog because they were responsible for that dog.” But it’s a two way street: the veterans benefit greatly too.


The Palo Alto program served as the pilot for the Warrior Canine Connection, now based in Boyds, Maryland, with program sites in Palo Alto, San Francisco, Asheville, North Carolina, and Denver, Colorado. Each service dog in training can impact up to 60 Veterans during its training process. When they complete the program, mobility service dogs are paired with those who need physical assistance and service dogs are paired with veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI). By interacting with the dog throughout each stage of the journey toward becoming a service animal, Warrior trainers receive the benefits of a physiological and psychological human-animal connection and are motivated by the knowledge that they are helping a fellow veteran. 


With funding from foundations, grants, and individual donations, as well as support from a broad and active network of volunteers, Warrior Canine Connection continues to expand its reach and ripple effects from the organization’s programming are seen and felt beyond the military community. Their work contributes to a growing body of research that supports the validity of alternative therapy modalities with far-reaching implications for policymaking and funding allocation around service animals. And they have brought together a cadre of fans from all over the world to bond over the simple pleasure of watching puppies play on the organization’s Puppy Cam. To learn more and support WarriorCanineConnection.ORG, click here.