When Jill Wilschke, LMFT, visited CU Denver to interview for the position of veteran mental health specialist, the interviewers invited a student veteran to participate in a “mock” counseling session with her.
Wilschke’s experience had been with the U.S. Marine Corps, so the student—who represented a different branch of the military—vowed, half-joking, to “give her a hard time” during the counseling session.
Then Wilschke’s “co-therapist” walked into the room and rested her head on the veteran’s knee.
“The vet melted,” Wilschke said, laughing. “He forgot about giving me a hard time.”
Wilschke got the job, along with her “co-therapist” Lulu—a black Labrador retriever service dog.
“Jill got this job because of Jill, not because of Lulu,” Larsen said of Wilschke. “Of the final three candidates for this position, Jill stood out because she had really lived military culture. Lulu was just an added bonus.”
Wilschke has always been a dog lover, but she first saw how dogs could assist in therapy when she was working with foster children. “I would have kids who were out of control,” she said. “Then the dog would show up, and they would sit calmly. They became different children when there were dogs around.”
When Wilschke’s husband, Alex, joined the Marine Corps after completing law school, she found herself living at Camp Pendleton in California while he was deployed to Iraq. When he returned from overseas, the couple moved to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. “I have never served in the military, but I have a visitor’s pass,” Wilschke said. “I am close enough to know the language.”
At Camp Lejeune, Wilschke put her training as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) to good use. She worked with Marines and U.S Navy sailors who were struggling with symptoms connected to their combat experience, including grief, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), paranoia and survivor’s guilt. She had been trained in evidence-based approaches to treat PTSD, but sometimes therapy boiled down to the basics.
“Often, [the service members] were just hurting, and they needed someone who would listen,” Wilschke said. “If you could just do that in a non-judgmental way, it could help give someone peace.”
Helping wounded warriors with PTSD
Krause-Parello, in conjunction with Col. Mona Pearl, has a second grant to study AAI with wounded warriors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. She is going to compare how animal interaction affects three groups of veterans: (1) patients with PTSD who have no traumatic brain injury (TBI), (2) patients with PTSD and mild TBI and (3) patients with PTSD who have not responded to other forms of treatment.
If her research shows that one of these three groups responds positively to canine interaction, the research will continue to a second phase. What if all three groups respond positively? “We would be very happy, because it would support that canines really do make a difference,” Krause-Parello said.
Since its inception, C-P.A.W.W. has quickly grown to include a new canine member of the team named Butler, a yellow Labrador retriever, as well as several research assistants, all of whom, not surprisingly, have dogs. Partnering with Pets for Vets and the Warrior Canine Connection, C-P.A.W.W. hopes to advance nursing knowledge and the standards of care for military veterans.
“I have a lot of friends in the military, and I want to give back to them, for they have given us plenty,” Krause-Parello said.