November 29, 2018

Dogs and Veterans of War Make Friends

By Michael Tsai | Tuesday September 24, 2013

A psychologist, a soldier and a dog walk into a Mexican restaurant, but you needn’t bother waiting for a punch line. Dr. Shannon Curry and her colleagues at the Hawaii Canine Assistance Network deal strictly with happy endings.

As head of Hawaii CAN’s public access program, Curry, a clinical psychologist, works with returned soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or brain injury to train future service dogs.

Once or twice a month, Curry takes a soldier volunteer and a service dog-in-training to Cholo’s Homestyle Mexican Restaurant or some other public space for structured socialization and desensitization outings. The dog learns how to behave in public, the recovering soldier learns to feel safe in the company of a trusted canine pal and Curry gathers evidence that dogs may in fact be man’s best counselors.

“A lot of soldiers who suffer from PTSD or brain injury find it difficult to enjoy the things they used to,” Curry says. “Working with dogs helps them to reintegrate with the community. It gives them a reason to leave home. Even if they’re scared, they’ll do it for the dogs.”

Curry’s understanding of the comforting power of canines dates back to her years as a Ph.D. student at Pepperdine University. Curry’s interest in developing portable therapeutic practices for non-Western cultures had led her to joining a medical mission in Peru. While there, Curry met Juan, a young boy who had been terribly disfigured when he was shoved into a generator and left to perish.

Curry arranged for Juan to travel to the United States for a series of reconstructive surgeries, even serving as the boy’s guardian for the year he spent receiving treatment. At the same time, Curry adopted a German shepherd ­Labrador named Gunnar to train as a service dog.

Juan and Gunnar bonded immediately, and Curry watched as the dog buoyed the boy’s spirits through medical setbacks, culture shock and homesickness.

The experience proved invaluable years later when Curry joined the staff of the Hawaii State Hospital and met then-rehabilitation director Tiffany Kawaguchi, who along with occupational therapist Shirley Takara and attorney Janel Yoshimoto had founded Hawaii CAN as a nonprofit volunteer organization.

Curry continues to study how dogs can be used in a variety of health care and correctional settings to improve mental health symptoms, reduce recidivism rates, even improve cognitive abilities.

“I love what I do,” Curry says. “I love helping people heal from trauma, incorporating dogs in the treatment and working with soldiers who have served us in incomprehensible ways.”