Therapy Dogs: Meet Lucca

Lt. j.g. Brendan Finton, psychology doctoral student, Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences 


Dogs have held a special place in the military for years, in a variety of positions as working dogs, service dogs and therapy dogs. In military medicine, the issue of dogs is now at the forefront as it has become common practice to consider service dogs and therapy dogs for our veterans diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

There is a general misconception that service dogs and therapy dogs are the same thing. Service dogs are generally highly trained dogs which serve individuals who have been deemed disabled. Therapy dogs, on the other hand, provide emotional support and brighten the days of patients of all kinds, to include military veterans.

How do therapy dogs help?

Reactions to therapy dogs are nearly universally positive, and there are several reasons why people believe therapy dogs help with recovery.  Dogs can be a distraction from negative things in life; they can be a great conversation starter thereby increasing social interactions; and research has found objective health benefits such as decreased blood pressure and stress hormones.

What makes a good therapy dog?

Therapy dogs and their handlers have to pass a number of behavior tests, such as:  calmly meeting friendly strangers, sitting politely for petting, allowing basic grooming, walking on a loose leash through a crowd, sitting and lying down on command, coming when called, reacting appropriately to another dog, being calm with distractions, and being calm when separated from the owner. They also have to handle the challenges that might come up in a medical setting such as:  clumsy petting, restraining hugs, angry yelling, being bumped from behind, being around medical equipment, and being petted by multiple people in a crowded situation. 

Gunnery Sergeant Chris  Willingham and Lucca K458. Lucca K458 is  a MARINE Hero.
Gunnery Sgt. Chris Willingham and Lucca K458. Lucca K458 is
a Marine hero.

What makes an uber therapy dog?

Within the Marine Corps, there is currently an exceptional retired military working dog, Lucca. Lucca served six years in the United States Marine Corps and during that time she deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan as a Specialized Search Dog, finding and marking explosives. During those deployments, she led over 400 patrols resulting in ZERO casualties. However, March 23, 2012, Lucca identified an IED buried on a patrol route.  She swept the surrounding area, and a secondary device was triggered. She lost her left front leg in the subsequent blast and was aeromedically evacuated from Afghanistan to Germany to San Antonio and finally to Camp Pendleton, where she completed her physical rehabilitation. Lucca was medically retired in June 2012. 

67003_437740376304013_494533711_nAfter her adoption by Gunnery Sgt. Chris Willingham, one of her former handlers, and following their transfer to Quantico, Va. in March 2013, Willingham and Lucca began visiting wounded warriors and veterans. She makes routine rounds at both Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, where she continues to make a dramatic impact on the lives of service members. 

Lucca is ahead of the game when interacting with our war wounded. Veterans connect with her service and many can relate to the loss of her leg.  But, one of Lucca’s greatest gifts to service members is her unwavering positive attitude. She hasn’t let her amputation slow her down and her enthusiasm when interacting with people provides a type of therapy not captured by other interventions.

Lucca is a true Devil Dog and is continuing her exceptional service even in retirement. Though, old habits die hard. If you pass by her carrying a bag, she’ll check you for explosives.

Editor’s note: Please look forward to a blog on service dogs, which will be published later this week.