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Therapy dog: a legacy of service

Capt. Carmella Burruss, 22nd Operations Support Squadron deputy chief of wing intelligence, poses for a photo with Valco, May 25, 2016, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. Valco is a Labrador-Poodle mix who has been training with Burruss to get his certification from Therapy Dog International so he can work in Veterans Affairs hospitals. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jenna K. Caldwell)

Capt. Carmella Burruss, 22nd Operations Support Squadron deputy chief of wing intelligence, poses for a photo with Valco, May 25, 2016, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. Valco is a Labrador-Poodle mix who has been training with Burruss to get his certification from Therapy Dog International so he can work in Veterans Affairs hospitals. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jenna K. Caldwell)

Valco, a therapy dog in training, shakes hands with his handler, Capt. Carmella Burruss, 22nd Operations Support Squadron deputy chief of wing intelligence, May 25, 2016, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. Valco has been taking obedience classes to earn his certification from Therapy Dog International so he can work in Veteran Affairs hospitals. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jenna K. Caldwell)

Valco, a therapy dog in training, shakes hands with his handler, Capt. Carmella Burruss, 22nd Operations Support Squadron deputy chief of wing intelligence, May 25, 2016, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. Valco has been taking obedience classes to earn his certification from Therapy Dog International so he can work in Veteran Affairs hospitals. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jenna K. Caldwell)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- A 22nd Operations Support Squadron officer here is training her dog, Valco, to help boost the morale of military members, veterans and families.

Capt. Carmella Burruss, 22nd OSS deputy chief of wing intelligence, has been training Valco, a 19-month-old Labrador-Poodle mix, for six months to become a certified therapy dog.

Valco has already completed a basic obedience course, and is now working on his advanced obedience course. He is on track to earn his official accreditation through Therapy Dog International.

The upbringing of Valco has been a family affair. Burruss's father, a former U.S. Army special operations forces deputy commander, raised Valco for about a year while Carmella was deployed.

Valco is named after a special operations K-9 and is carrying on that legacy of service. The original Valco was killed in action in Iraq in 2005; a unit that Burruss's father helped found in the 1970s.

"I think Cara's decision to train him and use him as a therapy dog is a wonderful tribute to his namesake," said retired Lt. Col. Lewis Burruss, "SOF working dogs, such as Valco's namesake, have been responsible for saving scores of lives. By naming other dogs after these canine heroes, we pay tribute to those canines killed in the line of duty."

Carmella is following in her father's military service footsteps and her dog Valco is doing the same by helping military members. Once certified, the goal is for Valco to work in Veterans Affairs hospitals and base medical facilities, helping people with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"People who are struggling with emotional problems can benefit a lot from having a therapy animal come visit them," said Carmella. "A therapy dog helps improve healing. Being around animals helps lower your blood pressure, reduces stress and anxiety and brings everybody's moods up."
Carmella stepped up to serve her country after 9/11 because she felt her nation needed her. That self-sacrifice as a leader and wingman is the same reason she continues to serve her country and help veterans in need, said Lewis.

"That concept of service--It's an extension of the reason I wanted to join the military," said Carmella. "While we are here working the current Air Force mission, we can give back to those that have given so much. If we can make one person smile, it's worth it."

Communication is important to the success of any military mission and it's just as important with a dog and handler partnership.

"It's a relationship and a conversation--he needs to trust me when I give him a command," said Carmella. "It's a team mentality. He looks to me sometimes for confidence, and I look to him to just be the big sweetheart that he is."

This trust is very important, especially because a portion of Valco's training involves learning how to deal with unfamiliar situations. Having confidence in his handler allows him to be graceful around people on crutches, be able to handle the noise of someone dropping a walker and being able to properly approach wheelchair-bound individuals.

Carmella has big plans for Valco's future. She hopes to eventually credential Valco as a search and rescue dog to help in disaster zones, and for him to spend time in nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities and working with young children.

"He can also be a reading therapy dog for children who have trouble reading," said Carmella. "[Children] can sit down and read to the dog and it boosts their confidence because they can connect with the animal and it's not another person making them nervous."

Carmella hopes the team will continue to help as many people as they can while spreading the word about the importance of therapy dogs and how they can boost morale within the veteran community.

"There's no way I'm not smiling when I walk around with him and see other people smile, it's infectious," said Carmella. "Being able to just look over at him, and he'll just wag his goofy tail you think, 'none of this is really that bad, because I get to love this dog right now.'"