Comforting canine companion
The Crook County Veteran Services Office in Prineville has added a new member to its staff, but she is more likely to greet visitors with a wet nose and a wagging tail than with a friendly hello.
Lily is a therapy dog, and she came on board last Thursday. A beautiful black Labrador Retreiver, she has become an instant favorite with everyone who's walked through the door. Her handler is Erik Nelson, assistant county veteran service officer for Crook County Veteran Services. He obtained Lily when she was a puppy and he was still in active military service. She is now five years old and is a certified therapy dog.
"When I took this job, I hadn't really thought about using her in any sort of working capacity," Nelson said. "But as I did more claims work and worked with veterans and their families, some really difficult issues — Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, loss of a loved one and revisiting combat — can be really traumatic."
Nelson said his job is mostly based on interviews and conversations with veterans and families.
"That is where she will excel — getting someone to open up about something they don't want to talk about," he explained.
Nelson added that talking about something that is difficult is a lot easier when you have a dog there to pet.
"She is just naturally empathic and has no problem sitting there and being pet for hours at a time. If you can tell anything about her just by meeting her the first time, she is very comforting. She has a natural comfort with people."
Because Lily loves people, Nelson was motivated to consider working with her as a therapy dog. He began looking at options where he could certify her; there are a lot of organizations that certify therapy animals.
"You have to kind of look at the standards for each organization and kind of say, 'Are these requirements realistic, and are they going to fit in a role that is my job?'" he said.
At the recommendation of one of their community partners, he got in contact with Alliance of Therapy Dogs, an international registry of certified dog teams. The nonprofit organization provides testing, certification, registration, support and insurance for members who work with their dogs in animal-assisted activities. Nelson said that among the testing criteria, the animal has to be in good health.
"We did the testing at the Redmond Regency Village location," he said, It included approaching Lily with a person or dog she didn't know and evaluating how she interacted with patients.
They looked at several things, Nelson said. "How is my control of her on leash, and how good is that connection between the two of us — between me and Lily?"
Nelson said the Crook County Veteran Services Office is set up to help people feel comfortable, and Lily will help with that calming environment.
Nelson is an accredited service officer. In Oregon, the accrediting organization for Veterans Services is the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs.
"I am a county employee, but I am an accredited service officer, and I have gone through a process and testing and continuing education in order to help veterans get their benefits," Nelson said.
He said he can sign most VA paperwork because of his accreditation. When veterans come to him for benefits or help, he is a repository of information on what benefits apply to each veteran.
"Every veteran is different, and every situation is different," he said.
Nelson pointed out that the average age of veterans in Crook County is 68-70. When a veteran dies, the surviving spouse is referred to the office for benefits.
"In that situation, I have a spouse who just lost their partner sitting in my office trying not to break down and cry," he said.
He also works on cases of personal assault in the military that may not have been addressed.
"In order for us to help them, we have to hear the story — and that is a tough story to tell. We have combat veterans of every age — Korea, Vietnam."
Many have never been into the office before, and they have never talked about their situation.
"Traumatic combat stress is a whole separate animal, and sometimes there is just nothing you can do to really just overcome it," he said. "Those situations are very emotionally difficult."
Nelson said he encounters veterans of all ages who can benefit from a therapy dog.
"Specifically, combat is such a unique thing, but it transcends generations and it transcends different combat eras," he said.
Lily will be at the Crook County Veteran Services Office every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.
The Crook County Veteran Services Office is located at 422 NW Beaver Street, Prineville, OR 97754
Main office number: 541-447-5304
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