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NEWS | Dec. 21, 2023

Brooke Army Medical Center commissions two new facility dogs

By Jason W. Edwards Brooke Army Medical Center Public Affairs

Brooke Army Medical Center commissioned two new facility dogs at a ceremony in the Carolyn D. Putnam Auditorium on Dec. 8.

Aja and Hershey, the newest additions to the BAMC Facility Dog Program, were both commissioned as Army officers – Aja to the rank of lieutenant colonel and Hershey to the rank of major.

They join the team alongside Army Maj. Budd and Air Force Maj. McAfee.

According to Maj. (Dr.) Mark Ahlenius, Maj. Hershey’s handler and director of the Transition to Adulthood Clinic at the Capt. Jennifer M. Moreno Primary Care Clinic, Hershey has proved to be a wonderful icebreaker as well as built-in therapy for his patients.

“He comforts patients that are going through something hard, often going up and putting his head on their lap before they even tell me what is going on,” Ahlenius said. “I have had numerous patients sob into him as they share their pain, and even for the most resistant teen – they can’t help but smile and interact with Hershey.”

Aja’s handler, Lt. Col. Kristen Shear, nurse scientist, agrees.

“I get to see more people smile,” she said. “I immediately notice that if I walk across campus with Aja I see a lot more smiles and greetings than if I happen to be walking without her.”

Col. Joseph Hudak, BAMC’s chief medical officer and command proponent for the facility dog program, has also noticed the smiles from the dogs’ presence.

“When you see these dogs around the facility you just can’t help but smile and feel a little better – feel just a little bit more happiness,” Hudak said. “I know our staff and our patients truly value having their furry faces around on our great days and on our not-so-good days.”

BAMC’s facility dogs are provided by America’s VetDogs, an organization that trains and places military facility dogs to provide animal-assisted intervention to patients and staff members at military and Veterans Affairs medical centers.

“While America’s VetDogs isn’t the only organization that trains facility dogs, we could not ask for better partners,” Hudak said.

According to Jennifer Higgins, special assistant for healthcare resolutions and Maj. Budd’s primary handler, America’s VetDogs provides a comprehensive training program for facility dogs before matching them with an organization like BAMC.

“Dogs are taught the four foundations of service dog training tasks; push, tug, brace and retrieval,” Higgins said. “There are over 200 tasks that can be trained based on these foundations and what is needed of each dog at each location.”

“Only the best of the best complete the training and become working dogs,” she added.

Some people have asked why BAMC commissions its facility dogs as military officers.

Col. Mark Stackle, BAMC’s commander, addressed that question.

“I think it’s kind of a special thing that we do that,” Stackle said. “It enables us to communicate that these are members of our team – we’re a Military Treatment Facility – and just like all of the human staff members and teammates that we have, our facility dogs are a vital part of the team, and the military rank helps support that identity.”

Stackle has witnessed first-hand the positive impact these dogs have brought to Team BAMC. He mentioned a “visible increase in positivity within that space” whenever he visits a department alongside one of the facility dogs.

“Until you see it,” Stackle explained. “It’s hard to describe what a powerful impact the facility dog program has on our organization.”