Who Let The Dogs In?

The dogs lay in peaceful repose on the Old Main 100 floor as Wartburg College students filed into Military Families and Subcultures, a first-of-its-kind course in Iowa. The students would study issues facing military families and engage in a solution — training service dogs. Dr. Susan Vallem, professor of social work, taught the Winter Term 2013 course inspired by Capt. Dan Grinstead ’72, a medical social worker at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, who enlisted in the Iowa Army National Guard at 58 to serve in Afghanistan and gain a better understanding of military life. “

Our focus is not about war or combat,” Vallem told the class, “but the folks looking at mental health and physical disabilities. We’ll be looking at how service dogs work, and the science behind it. You’ll be getting a grade, but what you’ll be doing will go a whole lot further by making a difference in people’s lives.” Scott Dewey, co-president of the nonprofit Retrieving Freedom Inc., runs the facility in Waverly that trains service dogs to assist veterans and autistic children. He divided the class into small groups — each with a dog to train. Clickers were used as “marker signals” to produce desired behaviors. “With the dogs, you’ll use markers several times,” he said. “For instance, they’ll have to open the refrigerator door, get something out like a bottle of water, then shut the door and, finally, they have to bring the bottle of water.”

“ Seeing how happy the people are who receive the dogs
really warmed my heart. I almost cried on the last day
of class because I didn’t want to stop helping RFI.”
– Rachel Krug ’15

To get a firsthand appreciation of the process, Dewey sent individuals out of class, returning with an unknown task to learn. The students roamed the classroom, guided positively by a clicker or deterred by shouts of disapproval (“No!”). If successful, they were rewarded with a prize. “If you say something once or twice, the dogs gets it,” Dewey said. “Most of the time with the dogs — and the average person — the encouragement of success is going to do a lot more than the fear of failure.” Vallem said the course is important for social work students. “I had students in senior practicum telling me, ‘I’m doing in-home family counseling. There are military issues with guard people that I don’t understand — deployment, family issues, and kids’ school issues.’ We’re hearing that from students working with various agencies, which shows we need more understanding about military-related issues.” Dewey said the dogs would benefit from being on campus and attending classes with student trainers. “The more socialization the dog has, the better for the recipient.”

Dewey trained Labradors and golden retrievers for hundreds of AKC-regulated retriever competitions over 14 years, but tired of the travel. His younger brother, who served eight tours in Iraq and Afghanistan in the U.S. Army and as a contractor, and RFI co-president Charles Dwyer told him about veterans and service dogs. Retrieving Freedom tries to place 10 dogs a year — at a cost of $20,000 each (below the industry average) wholly supported by donations. Training begins once the dog has become obedient and socialized, usually at 6 to 8 months old. The training time depends on the recipient — longer to assist a veteran with physical disabilities than one with post-traumatic stress disorder. The students would teach the dogs four or five main tasks. “They teach them to nudge. That’s a good one for post-traumatic stress,” Dewey said. “If you were a veteran who came back with post-traumatic stress, and you feel yourself getting anxious, you would say to the dog, ‘Nudge.’ Within one or two weeks, they’ll pick up on your anxiety, and you’d never have to tell him to nudge again. He’d just start reading you. “If the dog isn’t getting any attention by nudging and could see the anxiety climbing higher, the next step would be for him to put his paws up on you and then lick you in the face. If the dog goes through all those steps, little by little, when you start petting him he’ll be like, ‘He’s OK, he’s all right, he’s petting me.’ The dog is trying to break the chain of thought.”

“ With nightmares and flashbacks, nobody wants to wake me up, because
I can come up swinging. But the dog can nudge me, wake me up, and
bring me back to reality.”
– Brent Wightman

“The class did an amazing job of incorporating both hands-on work and learning about military lifestyle,” said Keegan Birkicht ’15, a psychology major from Robins. “The assistant dog trainers from Retrieving Freedom shared stories about their experiences in the military and how the dogs have helped them.” Veterans Chad Johnson and Brent Wightman are beholden to their service dogs. “I had some combat-related stress incidents that happened where I would have reactions,” said Johnson, who spent 12 years in the Iowa Army National Guard with deployments in Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan. “My dog Copper brings me back to the here and now. I was on a lot of medications, but didn’t like the side effects. The dog makes me more cheerful and happy. My stress level has gone down a lot.” Wightman served on high-profile missions with the U.S. Army Rangers during 14 years in the service. “With nightmares and flashbacks, nobody wants to wake me up, because I can come up swinging,” he said. “But the dog can nudge me, wake me up, and bring me back to reality.” He said students need to understand “how combat and war change a person.” “You take an 18- or 19-year-old kid and send them over to Iraq and Afghanistan for a year. You can lose a buddy.  here’s just a constant sense of alertness — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — because somebody is trying to kill you. I want to let these kids know what it’s like to come back with the unseen injuries of PTS — depression, anxieties, and survivor guilt.”

Dewey and his dogs returned to campus for a May Term social work course, Working with Different Abilities, taught by Dr. Tammy Faux, associate professor of social work, which addressed inclusion issues for people with disabilities, including children with autism. “I’ve seen what the dogs do for autistic children,” Wightman said. “They just change the parents and the child’s life. The parents have had to watch those kids constantly. With the dogs, there’s another set of eyes, and the kids don’t want to leave the dog.” As that course neared its conclusion, Amber McKain ’16, a religion major from Oconomowoc, Wis., said, “I feel amazing to teach a dog something that could help someone. My dog Trump and I are working on backing up a wheelchair.” The students held a bake sale on the final day, raising $300 for Retrieving Freedom, and, Faux added, “spreading awareness about the importance of service dogs working to help with inclusion.” Dewey appreciates the students’ help. “The next step in the placement process will be that much easier,” he said. “New person, same commands, but the dog will be more willing to do it.” “Seeing how happy the people are who receive the dogs really warmed my heart,” said Rachel Krug ’15, a social work major from Mount Pleasant. “I almost cried on the last day of class because I didn’t want to stop helping RFI.” Dewey and RFI will team with Dr. William Soesbe, assistant professor of education, for an interdisciplinary course, Leadership Theories and Practices, during Fall Term and with Vallem again for Military Families and Subcultures in social work during Winter Term.


Written by: Saul Shapiro

For more information, or to donate to Retreiving Freedom Inc.

Donations can be sent to Retrieving Freedom, Inc.,
1148 230th St., Waverly, IA 50677. Contact Scott Dewey
for more information at 319-290-0350 or

Who Let The Dogs Out was originally printed by Wartburg Magazine in its Summer 2013 Vol. 29 No. 3, and featured with the permission of the author.


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