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Piper, a 3-year-old boxer, is a certified therapy dog. Once a month, Piper accompanies her owner, Laura McKinney of St. Paul Park, to the VA Hospital in Minneapolis where the dog spends time with soldiers injured in the ongoing Iraq War. (Bulletin photo by Jon Avise)

Dog good therapy for injured vets

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In her work as a nurse at the Minneapolis VA Hospital, Laura McKinney deals with a lot of "yes, sir; no, sir" kind of guys.

But the 24-year-old St. Paul Park resident knows one sure-fire trick to bring a usually reserved Iraq War veteran out of his or her shell: Piper, her 3-year-old boxer and certified therapy dog.

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"We bring a dog in and it's so unusual they just light up," McKinney said from her house last week, a few hours after she returned home from working the night shift in the VA Hospital's polytrauma unit where she helps veterans who are suffering from brain injuries. "It's really a highlight of their day."

It's both a hospital unit and a group of soldiers that need a little sunshine. The patients under her watch are fighting through physical and emotional pain, and long, difficult rehabilitations. Oftentimes, she says, the injuries are the result of Iraq's omnipresent roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices.

But once each month Piper tags along, one of a few therapy dogs the hospital uses to help treat injured vets. Piper's a bit more clumsy than your typical therapy canine, McKinney said, but among her patient population -- made up of mostly big, sturdy military guys -- the small boxer fits just fine.

For patients with serious brain damage, Piper is simply a quiet companion, a calm and friendly dog to lie with. For the more fortunate, she's a perky pet, a friend to play a game of fetch with.

Whatever it is Piper's doing, the effect is visible, McKinney says.

"It's the physical contact," she said. "Physical contact is very important for patients and it's something in the current healthcare system that is really lacking."

Therapy dogs are being increasingly used to treat returning veterans with physical ailments as well as soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. And studies, including one conducted at the University of Missouri, have shown therapy dogs can lower blood pressure and stress levels in humans.

Playing with Piper represents an escape for the injured soldiers, she says, taking them away from the hospital and "reminds them of when things were normal."

McKinney says she has always loved dogs. Her first job was at an animal shelter in her hometown of River Falls, Wis., as a 16-year-old and she continued working with animals as a student at St. Scholastica in Duluth.

Work with animals can be draining, she says, but "I don't think anything prepared me better for being a nurse than working in a shelter."

The night shift in Minneapolis can be draining, too. But to see an injured soldier's face light up at the sight of Piper, McKinney said, is worth it.

"It's awesome that we can bring them a little bit of joy and happiness," McKinney said, "even though they're stuck in the middle of this hard time."

For more information on therapy dogs, visit Therapy Dog International's Web site at www.tdi-dog.org.

Jon Avise can be reached at javise@swcbulletin.com.

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