From racetrack to therapy couch: A unique addition to the 911th Airlift Wing

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jefferson James-Dorsey
  • 911th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

There’s a new addition to the 911th Airlift Wing by the name of Boris and he has an open door policy to assist with your therapy needs.

Michael Zimmerman, director of psychological health for the 911th AW, provides a safe place, free of judgement, to work through a multitude of life’s stresses, from work issues to personal matters.  The psychological health office offers an inviting atmosphere with comfortable furniture, a smart TV, free Wi-Fi, an espresso machine and now Boris – a therapy dog in training.

Boris, known as Grande Juan (or Big John) on the racing circuit in Florida, could speed up to 38 miles per hour at the height of his career. He won first place nearly 20 times and placed in the top three for half of his 85 races until last November when an injury forced him to retire from track life. Similar to many service members, Boris ventured into a new career following his initial retirement.

At 75 pounds, the full-bred red-brindle greyhound can be an imposing figure, but his easygoing demeanor makes him well-suited for this line of work. Nevertheless, Zimmerman understands that not all people are “dog-people,” a fact that he is mindful of when introducing Boris to groups or individuals.

According to Zimmerman, Boris has been well received and has already had face time with wing, group and squadron commanders, who have all been very supportive of this project.

Boris’ primary role is to improve morale and lift the spirits of anyone in need. This is accomplished through animal-assisted activities, which according to the American Veterinary Medical Foundation, “provide opportunities for motivation, education or recreation to enhance quality of life. AAAs are delivered in a variety of environments by specifically trained professionals.”

As a licensed clinical social worker, Zimmerman plans to incorporate Boris into his “solution focused brief therapy” and establish visitation areas for AAA.

"He is an extension of my therapy toolbox; he can be used for a calming or grounding in the moment,” said Zimmerman.

During one-on-one therapy sessions to address issues such as anxiety, PTSD or sexual trauma, for example, the canine stays in tune with the mood and tone of the discussion. He is able to recognize physical and emotional responses and when necessary, will jump into action by approaching the individual and putting his head on their lap, or snuggling up next to them on the couch.

In a group setting, Boris’ mission is to respect cues and commands, without becoming overwhelmed by environmental factors. He’s already demonstrated this behavior with security forces, clinic and headquarters staff, said Zimmerman.

Making the transition from racing to residential life opened up a whole new world for Boris. When off duty, he is a family pet in the Zimmerman household, and while there is no therapy work at home, Boris did have to learn to adjust to things foreign to track life, like carpet, stairs, children and other pets.

As a therapy dog working on a military installation, Boris’ training includes learning to cope with specific exposure to sights and sounds of the environment, such as aircraft and other vehicles or exercises featuring sirens, smoke or explosions.

Zimmerman stresses that it is important to note that Boris is not a service or emotional support animal. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, “a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability.”

“Although all dogs offer an emotional connection with their owner, to legally be considered an emotional support dog, the pet needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to a person with a disabling mental illness,” according to the American Kennel Club.

The key difference is that service and emotional support animals provide assistance dedicated to their owners, whereas therapy dogs receive intense obedience training by their owners or handlers to assist others.

Zimmerman has taken continuing education courses and workshops and will be tested to become certified on handling and instructing Boris properly. With months of training under his collar, Boris will also test to become a certified therapy dog in the coming months and later be a regular attendee of the 911th unit training assemblies and other events.