At Your Service

At Penn’s new outpost of the Warrior Canine Connection, highly-trained service dogs are matched with U.S. Veterans, all thanks to alumna Paula Crawford-Gamble.

By Christina Hernandez Sherwood

When Paula Crawford-Gamble, MSN, CRNP, GNu’85, GNC’93, head of Penn Medicine’s Veterans Care Excellence Program, is on campus, she’s always accompanied by her service dog, Dollie, a two-year-old black lab. Lately, Dollie has had more four-legged company at the University of Pennsylvania, where Crawford-Gamble has established a new outpost of the Warrior Canine Connection, a national program that trains service dogs and pairs them with veterans.

The program is close to Crawford-Gamble’s heart—it’s how she was matched with Dollie. “You don’t know that you really need a dog,” says Crawford-Gamble, who spent a quarter-century in the armed forces and now lives with a visual disability, “until you spend time with a dog.”

Warrior Canine Connection provides two key services, Crawford-Gamble says. First, it enlists veteran volunteers to train service dogs using a “mission-based recovery model” that both prepares the dog for service and provides a sort of therapy for the veteran trainer.

(Studies by Warrior Canine Connection showed that levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin in the brain increase with the development of human-animal bonds, including relationships with service dogs, explains Crawford-Gamble. Oxytocin is known to act as a buffer from the stress hormone cortisol and has been shown to help regulate the psychological symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.)

After training, the program matches these highly-skilled service dogs with veterans who need them. “The dog serves multiple purposes,” says Crawford-Gamble.

Crawford-Gamble first encountered the Warrior Canine Connection when she was a nurse with the U.S. Navy serving at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, a Bethesda, Maryland-based hospital specializing in traumatic brain injury care. “[Warrior Canine Connection] is a phenomenal group that has a major impact with the treatments of these warriors,” she says.

Dollie helps Crawford-Gamble when her light sensitivity causes debilitating headaches. “[Dollie] was able to put pressure on my neck and my head, which really alleviated the pain,” she says. “I can’t believe they can train a dog to do that.”

Paula Crawford- Gamble with service dog, Dollie. Paula Crawford- Gamble with service dog, Dollie. Credit: Eddy MarencoLast fall, Crawford-Gamble helped make Philadelphia the newest Warrior Canine Connection location, establishing a program office and full-time trainer at the University of Pennsylvania. The effort is a collaboration between the Schools of Nursing, Medicine, Dental Medicine, and Veterinary Medicine. “Without the support of the leadership we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Crawford-Gamble says. “Now is the time for this.”

Already, six service dogs are training there—each named after a service member or veteran who made a significant contribution to the country. The dogs who don’t complete training—Crawford-Gamble says about half don’t go on to become service dogs—are usually placed with veteran families to provide psychological support.

The group is also training a future “facility dog,” a service dog who would work at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Crawford-Gamble says. They hope to eventually add facility dogs throughout the Penn system. “We’re taking it slow,” Crawford-Gamble says, “because we want to do it right.”

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