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NEWS | April 21, 2021

Physical, occupational therapy addresses injury prevention for MWD handlers

By Agnes Koterba 37th Training Wing Public Affairs

In a physically and mentally demanding occupation, military working dog handlers with the 341st Training Squadron are exposed to risks. These risks are typically workplace injuries. 

Physical and occupational therapy play an important role in reducing such injuries, along with the associated physical and mental stressors.

MWD handlers “experience a lot of physical stress when doing bite work with the bite sleeves” including “arms, shoulders and hands from the leash tension of having strong pulling dogs on a leash,” stated Logan Mordh, MWD trainer.

When two former members of the 341st TRS explored avenues of care and support, they enlisted the help of a physical and occupational therapy team who took a proactive approach to address injury concerns.

“MWD handlers have a very physically intensive job in an ever-changing and dynamic environment. Additionally, their daily movements are repetitive which increases their risk of overuse injury,” said Capt. Brittaney Nores, a physical therapist and executive officer at the 59th Surgical Operations Squadron.

MWD trainers are further limited in predicting the speed or angle at which a dog may bite or jump from, creating the probability for increased injury. These considerations led physical and occupational therapists to establish a holistic injury mitigation program specific to the needs of handlers.

“Physical therapists are able to identify trends, modify habits, and educate members on self-care and injury mitigation techniques from a holistic approach,” Nores said.

The therapy team formulated exercises and established walk-in hours to accommodate the trainer’s busy schedules. “When members are seen acutely, they are usually able to return more quickly. Not always the case, but the time to treatment matters,” Nores said.

Whether scar massage techniques or desensitization exercises are incorporated, each treatment “better [equips] this team with ergonomics and activity modification in order to reduce injuries obtained on the job” encouraging healthy coping skills, thereby allowing handlers to remain focused, said Capt. KaRena Lehman, occupational therapy element chief.

Ergonomic adjustments, coping mechanisms, and warm-up and cool-down exercises are just a few therapy tools that allow MWD trainers to take proactive steps in job injury prevention.

“Instead of rehabbing after an injury or surgery, we are trying to reduce the number that happens with education and targeted techniques. This approach is injury mitigation versus injury rehabilitation,” Nores said.

Taking care of one’s health early is critical to lasting success.

“You only have one body for the next 60-plus years and you need to take care of yourself physically and mentally. Address your pain and limitations now so you are able to be functional currently and in your later years,” Lehman pointed out.

The necessity for preventative measures must be considered so that the passion and efforts displayed by MWD handlers continue with ease.

“I’ve personally seen these men and women go above and beyond in training and caring for our four-legged Airmen. Serving in this unrelenting environment, where the physical demands are high, requires a heightened focus on the well-being of our MWD handlers and trainers.  Anything less could jeopardize their success both personally and professionally,” said Col. Joyce Storm, 37th TRG commander.

“Dealing with significant injuries, or just everyday aches and pains, should not be the norm,” she added. “Providing the right resources helps reduce workplace stressors and improve not only morale but performance. I’m continually amazed to see the teamwork displayed by those organizations who support our proactive approach in taking care of our Airmen (two- and four-legged).”