Man’s Best Friend: Therapy Dogs Aid Patient Recovery at Walter Reed

Therapy dog Walter Reed soldiers
Military hospitals are implementing therapy dog programs to support patients, families, and staff.

Therapy dogs have been used in many health care settings and have proven efficacy in managing patients’ anxiety, depression, and feeling of loneliness. If dog therapy works for civilians, why not apply the same principles to wounded soldiers in the US military?

Started in 2005, the facility dog program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, has grown to include 7 dogs and the concept has spread to other military medical treatment facilities. The 7 facility dogs at Walter Reed work, on average, 200 hours per month and have contact with 2500 people, including supporting staff, patients, and families in outpatient settings.

“These tough guys, who have gone through traumatic injuries, amputations, and [being] shot – all of a sudden I see them rolling around on the floor, baby talking to the dogs, and I [see] them put their guard down,” said Harvey Naranjo, COTA/L. Naranjo started the program after witnessing the positive effects the dogs had among injured Special Forces soldiers who were undergoing a therapeutic horse riding program.

“I thought of how much more I could do for [the soldiers] if I had a dog,” said Naranjo. A hospital volunteer heard Naranjo mention his observations and brought a chocolate Labrador (Lab) retriever named Deuce into the clinic. Naranjo currently is an occupational therapy assistant and is coordinator of the adaptive sports program and service dog program liaison at Walter Reed.

Amy O’Connor and Patty Barry oversee the facility dog program at Walter Reed Bethesda Facility Dog Program, and Naranjo is the program service dog patient education & referral liaison. All dogs are highly trained by outside organizations.

“I’ve had the privilege to be part of this program for over 15 years and have a wonderful group of handlers that are primarily active duty service members who do the handling of the dogs as a collateral duty. This program is truly nobody’s job; we all give a little bit of ourselves to make it work,” O’Connor said.

“We try to switch [the dogs] up in their daily duties,” said lead handler Navy Hospital Corpsman Skylor Cervantes. “Different dogs can go to different areas, and different people can meet the different dogs, have different interactions with them because they all have their own unique personalities. Some of the dogs do work in specific locations, but they also get to visit other locations.”

For example, children who have cancer tend to be at the medical center for a long time. “These dogs become part of their treatment plan, they become part of their family,” O’Connor noted.

One area the therapy dogs visit every day is the Military Advanced Treatment Center (MATC), O’Connor explained. Truman, a chocolate Lab, is the resident MATC dog, Naranjo said.

The therapy dog program has extended from Walter Reed to the following military hospitals:

  • Naval Medical Center San Diego has 2 Labs named LC and Cork
  • Brooke Army Medical Center-Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas, is getting a facility dog named Budd
  • Madigan Army Medical Center has a new facility dog named Earl. The black Lab just started his mission with the Peer Support Program on May 16, 2022
  • The California Air National Guard’s 144th Fighter Wing also has a facility therapy dog named Paige

The appearance of US Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.


Aker JA. Facility dogs play a vital role in recovery for patients across the MHS. May 27, 2022. Accessed June 7, 2022.

This article originally appeared on Clinical Advisor