SIOUX CITY, Iowa – It is a familiar scene. The pressure is on and expectations are high, then the new guy walks into the room for the first time. First observations are that this newbie seems a bit young and a little fat for the Air Force.
He’s about 1 foot tall and has a fuzzy snowflake-white coat. The little newcomer has calm dark eyes, a shiny nose and, with a wag of his tail, he immediately wins over everyone in the room.
The new youngster is Lincoln, an English Cream Golden Retriever puppy. He has an advantage as the new guy because he is very small and unassuming, but he has a big job ahead. At just 10 weeks old, he is not aware that as a therapy dog in training he will potentially have the weight of someone’s world on his tiny shoulders.
“The English Cream Golden Retriever have it in their DNA to want to be with people,” said Lincoln’s caretaker, Iowa Air National Guard Lt. Col Steve Peters, 185th Air Refueling Wing chaplain. “They are a very empathetic breed and make fantastic therapy dogs.”
Lincoln seems to be adjusting to his new assignment fairly well, even though he spends quite a lot of time sleeping.
Peters said Lincoln started training for his career the day he was born. As part of his early tutelage, the kennel where Lincoln came from introduced him to unusual sounds and smells designed to acclimate him to the noisy, smelly world he would soon enter.
“What they are most interested in in therapy dogs are characteristics of calmness and loving people, slow to react to startling noises, or being distracted from things that are going on around them,” Peters said.
When Peters got the go-ahead to have a dog join the 185th care team, he went looking for a puppy. He said he found Lincoln at a kennel that breeds dogs to be therapy dogs.
Peters said Lincoln had been working hard even before he arrived at the Air Guard base, but there are months of training ahead. Still, just having Lincoln on the base has had an immediate effect on people.
“When he arrived at the base, there was a steady stream of people at the door,” said Peters. “God bless the little boy; he was happy and excited every time somebody would come in.”
Having a therapy dog like Lincoln in the workplace is becoming more accepted. Peters said therapy dogs break down mental barriers, making people more willing to open up and talk.
“The bottom line is that I believe Lincoln will be just another way in which we can care for members of our team,” said Peters.
Lincoln’s arrival is just in time for the military’s observation of National Suicide Prevention Month in September. The September training weekend is when most 185th unit members will get their first opportunity to meet the new recruit.
According to Peters, the calming presence of an animal like Lincoln can put people at ease and make it easier for caregivers to address spiritual, mental and physical health issues.
“Therapy dogs can break down barriers that people have built up. [People] can finally allow their anxieties to relax,” Peters said.