NEW ORLEANS — When you walk down the halls of Touro Hospital, you may see some unusual looking staff members.
They won't mind if you rub their heads or pat their bellies, as long as you realize they are in the hospital getting ready to serve a noble purpose.
Indie and her buddy Touro are destined for greatness. They will one day go through commencement at the World War II Museum, like some older graduates did on Saturday. Then, they will spend a life in service to the men and women who bravely served our nation in the military. But for now, they are getting socialized and learning basic skills with puppy trainers who bring them to work every day in physical therapy and rehab at Touro.
"It changed the whole demeanor of our rehab unit from the nurses and therapists, the patients. Everybody was smiling and, you know, excited to see the puppy and wanting to hold the puppy," said Maggie Homer the Stroke Rehab Program Supervisor at Touro.
"It enables the dogs to serve a purpose now, and then to serve a purpose later," said Cody Bellanger, the CEO and Director of Training Client Services of United States Veterans Service Dogs.
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After a year, the dogs get specialized, advanced training. Vitani, the Black Labrador Retriever, is now more focused with trainer Cody Bellanger. But before that, Yellow Labradors, Touro and Indie, are bringing an incentive to rehab patients to work a little bit harder.
"It just makes me feel safer. I'm more comfortable … I don't know why," said Touro patient Sharon Jones.
"He's been great in my therapy sessions, especially bringing patients out. A lot of times people can be depressed when they're in the hospital," Homer said.
Anyone who knows the unconditional love and bond with a dog, knows the heartache of saying good-bye. And that day will come for the puppy handlers and the trainers.
"You have to love what the puppy does more than the puppy, and if you can't love their purpose, then you can't do this job, because I can promise you, you will never love that dog like that veteran will. It's impossible" Bellanger said.
And for a wounded veteran, it's impossible to imagine life without a loyal companion.
If you'd like to donate to United States Veterans Service Dogs, or learn more about being a puppy raiser, visit the USVSD website here.