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By Donna Cipolloni

Tester staff writer

There are a lot of friendly staff at Naval Health Clinic Patuxent River, but only one is furry and has four legs.

Every Wednesday, throughout the day, patients sitting in the health clinic’s waiting room will be visited by Joe, a black and tan Labrador retriever, who also happens to be a highly trained and specialized facility therapy dog capable of identifying individuals suffering from high levels of stress.

“Joe is able to smell the pheromones given off by individuals under extreme stress — not the ‘I lost my car keys’ type of stress; this is stress of a serious nature,” explained his handler, Lt. Cmdr. Tracy Krauss, manager, Naval Branch Health Clinic, Joint Base Andrews, who along with Joe, visits Pax River once a week.

Approximately once each hour, on Krauss’s “go visit” command, Joe will take his own leash in his mouth and navigate the waiting room.

“If he identifies someone, he’ll drop his leash, sit at their feet and not leave until he’s told it’s okay to do so,” Krauss said.

Once an individual is singled out by Joe, Krauss will check the reason for the patient’s visit; if it is not stress-related, staff will address the issue confidentially by asking them appropriate questions.

“I’ll explain to them that Joe identified them as being overly stressed and will ask if everything is okay and if there’s anything we can do to help them,” Krauss said. “Often, people will get down on the floor and pet Joe while they talk; and once they start talking, they usually don’t stop.”

Krauss explained that people under extreme stress are often reluctant to admit their struggle and do not actively seek the care they need.

“People don’t want to lose their security clearance; pilots don’t want to be grounded; others are concerned people will think less of them,” she said. “Joe helps us locate them. From there, we can find them the help they need. ”

On the job a little more than a year, Joe has sat with 22 individuals within the four military health clinics he visits. All 22 had checked in for something other than stress and all received mental-health referrals. But, most important, Joe saved at least five of their lives.

“Out of the 22 identified, five had a suicide plan,” Krauss said, “and one of them had intended to carry it out that same evening.”

While Joe is the Navy’s only stress-sniffing dog, he occasionally serves double-duty as an anxiety dog, accompanying patients during medical procedures and dental work, or distracting them from discomfort afterward.

“Joe doesn’t care what uniform you wear or what your rank is,” Krauss said. “He’s calming and has nothing but love to give. He makes things happen and he makes people smile.”

Grant-funded and provided at no cost to the Navy, Joe was trained by Southeastern Guide Dogs who also worked with Krauss when Joe first reported for duty.

“They brought him to my home and worked with me on his training commands,” she said. “He must have permission to come in or go out a door; must wait to eat his food until I say it’s okay; always walks on my left side; goes to the bathroom on command; and is trained not to bark. It only took about a week; we bonded quickly.”

Joe lives with Krauss, and while he will chase her during his leisure time, he draws the line at playing fetch. Mostly, he just wants to work.

“When we walk in a clinic door, he’s pulling at his leash ready to work,” she said. “That’s what he was trained to do. It’s what he knows and that’s what he wants to do.”