Military Training

Guide dog reports for duty at Bassett Army Community Hospital

Posted: Monday, December 05, 2005

FAIRBANKS - Most weekday mornings about 6:30, Megan, a 13-month-old yellow Labrador retriever reports for nursing rounds at Bassett Army Community Hospital in her battle dress uniform jacket.

Megan has the distinction of being the first guide dog in training in a military hospital, said her handler, Col. Elizabeth Mittelstaedt, deputy commander for nursing at Bassett Army Community Hospital.

"I don't know if it would work anyplace else than Alaska," said Mittelstaedt. "It's such a dog-friendly place."

Mittelstaedt is training Megan for Guide Dogs of the Desert, an organization which provides high-quality guide dogs and individual instruction to the blind and the blind with special needs so they can live a more mobile and independent life.

Bassett's chief nurse is enjoying the 24-hour-a-day guide dog trainer experience.

"I think it's been great for the hospital, and it's raised people's awareness of guide dog training," Mittelstaedt said. "We go everywhere together in the hospital, except the operating room."

For patient visits, Mittelstaedt carries a Rubbermaid mat. She places the mat next to a patient's bed so Megan can stand on her hind legs and rest her paws on the bedside and not have her feet slip on the hospital's slippery waxed floors.

Staff Sgt. Billy Joe Musgrove welcomed Megan last Wednesday into his hospital room as he prepared to return home to Fort Greely after a five-day stay.

A dog lover and owner of three dogs himself, Musgrove was impressed with Megan's friendly hospital room manners.

"It's a good thing, bringing a dog around people," he said as he stroked Megan's head.

Megan's acceptance by staff members is unmistakable. On the fourth floor, her photo anchors a bulletin board of photos titled, "Your Medical-Surgical Team."

Col. Koji P. Nishimura, commander, U.S. Army Medical Department Alaska, had no problem authorizing Megan's staff position at Bassett, calling the canine's presence another alternate form of healing in a healing place.

Bassett nurse Edward Lichtenberger likes to see Megan interact with the patients.

"I think it's good, especially with the chronic patients and unaccompanied soldiers, and retired veterans who are here for a while," Lichtenberger said.

The staff is very receptive toward Megan, said Capt. Richard Rickley, head nurse.

"It's a fun thing, especially for the children. It's a definite highlight to have a visit with a dog."

Sometimes, Mittelstaedt said, it's hard to keep people from trying to pet the attractive Labrador when she is wearing her training jacket.

"I have to tell people, "Sorry you can't touch her, she's working," she said. "She's curious about people walking by, but she doesn't bolt, she doesn't bark."

When Megan's trainer stops to talk to someone, Megan sits quietly. If the conversation is a long one, she may lie on her side on the floor. During long meetings, Megan often takes the opportunity to catch a nap.

Megan's time at the hospital accustoms her to the smells, noises and fans, as well as riding in an elevator, resources she may call upon later as a professional guide dog.

Many experiences and interactions with people are put into Megan's training scheme. Last week she accompanied Mittelstaedt to a dental appointment, sleeping right through the high-pitched whine of the dentist's drill.

Next week, Megan is scheduled for her first plane ride, and not in the cargo bay.

Once a day at Bassett, Mittelstaedt removes Megan's jacket, and "Everybody gets a little loving from Megan," Mittelstaedt said.

As soon as the training jacket is off, Megan reverts to the affectionate, gentle, tail-wagging pup she is.

Mittelstaedt also takes Megan with her to many community activities, including meetings of the Yukon Quest board of directors, on which she serves.

Mittelstaedt became involved in guide dog training last spring when she met Megan's brother, Mikey, at Fred Meyer and expressed an interest in becoming a trainer.

Pam and Roger Hansen are the local coordinators for the program. Five dogs in the area are being trained to be Guide Dogs of the Desert out of Palm Springs, Calif. Three are at work in Fairbanks, one in North Pole and the fifth in Delta Junction.

About once a month, the dogs in training and trainers meet and train their dogs together. They may set up a special course for the dogs, visit a craft fair or take the dogs with them to a restaurant.

"It helps me, and I think it helps the dogs," Mittelstaedt said.

Mittelstaedt and Megan will continue working together until May. Then Megan will be returned to Palm Springs, Calif., to begin another round of training.

If all goes well, Megan will be placed with a visually impaired person who needs her services.

"She's certainly changed my life," Mittelstaedt said. "It's added a new dimension. ... "I hope it changes someone else's life."

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