Story By Wil Crews/ Photos Contributed
K9s for Warriors is a nonprofit that aims to end veteran suicide and return warriors to a life of dignity and independence. The organization rescues shelter dogs to be paired as service dogs for warriors with service-connected post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury or military sexual trauma.
At least 20 veterans who served post 9/11 commit suicide daily, on average, according to the K9s for Warriors website. Roughly 20% of those post 9/11 veterans suffer from PTSD — that’s over 700,000 veterans. Service members suffering from PTSD are at a higher risk for suicide. And around 700,000 dogs are euthanized in shelters every year, the website said.
Each month a cohort of veterans arrives at one of K9s for Warriors two campuses for a three-week, in-house training at no cost to them. K9s for Warriors provides the veterans with an already-trained canine, housing, meals, equipment, veterinary care and 120 hours of training in a family-type atmosphere that provides essential peer-to-peer support. Veterans learn how to work with their service dog and create the necessary bonding for the two to be a successful team during the three-week training period.
Recently, two strangers, Army veterans Ryan and Ben [last names are withheld by the organization], went to the K9s for Warriors’ headquarters – Camp K9 – in Ponte Vedra, Florida.
“When I got out [of the service], the PTSD was pretty bad,” Ryan said. “I didn’t want to admit it at first but it starts creeping up into every part of your life. One of my old soldiers had gone through K9s for Warriors. I saw him at another one of our soldier’s funerals with his dog. I saw the change in him and knew right away it was something I needed to do.”
Ben’s reasoning for applying to the program was a little different.
“I wanted the freedom to go anywhere and do anything, and I wanted to get back to doing the things I loved before all of my issues arose,” he said.
Ryan was ahead of Ben in the check-in line when they arrived at Warriors for K9s, and Ben overheard where Ryan was from. The two come to find out that they only lived 10 minutes away from each other in Smiths Station, Alabama.
“We started talking from there and realized that our kids go to the same schools,” Ben said. “We’re like five miles from each other.”
The two trained with their new service dogs, Caliber, a three-year-old lab-pit mix, and Apollo, a two-and-a-half-year-old Swiss Mountain dog, for three weeks before heading back home.
“[Apollo] is a very needy dog; he craves attention and affection,” Ben said. “He thinks he’s a lab dog. For him and me it was really easy, because I enjoyed the attention as well.”
Ryan said he had to work a little harder to earn the affection of Caliber.
“I wouldn’t say we really hit it off right away,” he said. “It’s kind of ironic. I’m a gunsmith by trade and his name’s Caliber. It just worked out really cool. But I found out what motivated him after about a week and a half, that’s when we started bonding and ever since then he hasn’t left my side.”
The dog-to-trainer bond that Ben and Ryan have developed with their canines can be a life saver for many veterans. Apollo will wake Ben up if he’s having nightmares and is always checking on his owner.
“For me, one of the biggest issues on a day-to-day basis was my temper,” Ben said. “And going out in public, I have anxiety attacks, panic attacks, things like that.”
Ben said Apollo takes his mind off of everything going on around him and in turn, Apollo takes the attention off of Ben because everyone wants to look at the cute dog.
“I very rarely have panic attacks in public anymore; my demeanor is more even-keeled,” Ben said.
The benefits that Caliber present to Ryan are very similar.
“Just a lot of confidence going out,” Ryan said. “I just have a different outlook. I don’t mind actually talking to people nowadays. I used to think people were always looking at me, but now I have someone to take the attention.”
K9s for Warriors has graduated 641 warrior-canine teams and rescued 1,231 dogs as of Sept. 2020. The majority of the dogs that train in the program come from rescue shelters or are owner surrendered. K9s for Warriors rescues the dog and the dog rescues the veteran.
Ryan and Ben have kept in touch since leaving the K9s for Warriors program.
“We’re fishing buddies for sure,” Ryan said. “I’ve been kayak fishing all the time and now I can’t get him to come with me.”
Still, both veterans cannot say enough about K9s for Warriors.
“I would recommend the program to any veteran,” Ben said.
Ryan said that this program is one of the best for those who suffer with PTSD.
“Not only are they rescuing dogs but they are rescuing soldiers,” he said.
To learn more or to donate go visit the website (www.k9sforwarriors.org.) Eighty-two percent of K9s for Warriors’ funds support their operating and program cost. The remaining 18% covers administrative cost to ensure the organization will continue to grow, and in turn, save more lives.