K9 for Warriors — To Support Veterans with PTSD
When Shari Duval’s son Brett, a veteran K9 police officer returned home from Iran, she knew he wasn’t the same son that left. Brett served two tours of duty in Iran while working as a contractor for the Department of the Army as a bomb dog handler. Like other mother’s, wives and loved ones, she didn’t know what to do to help bring back the Brett she knew. But, watching him interact with his dog, she saw glimpses of the son she loved. After two years of research on canine assistance for those affected with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in 2011 she founded K9s for Warriors.
K9s for Warriors is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization located in Ponte Verde, Florida, near Jacksonville. The program is completely free for post 9/11 veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and/or military sexual trauma (MST). At least 90% of the dogs trained at the camp come from high-kill rescue shelters or owner surrender.
Why Duval found a need for K9s for Warriors:
- 20% of post-9/11 veterans suffer from PTSD
- 10% of post-9/11 combat veterans, 338,514 men and women, are diagnosed with a TBI
- Every day, an alarming number, approximately 22 veterans suffering from PTSD, commit suicide
- These veterans take an average of 10-15 medications, after the program 92% have eliminated or reduced prescription medication after graduating from K9s for Warriors
- Shelters euthanize 3.5 million dogs every year, K9s for Warriors rescues as many as possible for training as service dogs
Symptoms of PTSD
The veterans that arrive at Camp K9 are suffering from many of the symptoms of PTSD, including:
- Panic attacks
- Depression – suicidal
The Bayer Pet Influencer team visited the K9 Camp as a guest of Bayer Animal Health. In addition to sponsoring the training and adoption of 20 dogs at a cost of $15,000 each, their total contribution to K9s since 2014 is more than a half a million dollars. These contributions helped cover the training shelter dogs undergo before being paired with a veteran, and the training veterans receive with their service dogs. Also, Bayer’s K9 Advantix® Ⅱ product is the official flea and tick preventive used while at Camp K9.
During our visit Brett Simon, President of K9s for Warriors, talked to us personally about how he and his mom started K9s and its early days. I did a Facebook live post that you can link to here.
Camp K9 — Service Dogs Matched with Veterans for Help with PTSD
Our team arrived on a very special day at the K9 for Warriors camp — Graduation Day. But that wasn’t why we were here, our visit coincided with the time the warriors would be out on their final test with their service dogs, visiting places like Target, things that they would do with their dogs when they got back home. K9s for Warriors takes protecting the privacy of their warriors very seriously by never exposing them to the general public in the camp during their three-week training. Camp K9 is a haven to feel safe, with people who are there to help, and that understand them.
Right away we met service-dog-in-training, Bo, found as a stray by a shelter that contacted K9s, now he’s finishing up his training. He’ll be ready for the next class to arrive, then matched with his warrior. K9s has strict requirements for the dogs they select as warrior service dogs. The majority, about 90%, they pull from high-kill rescue shelters or owner surrendered. Each dog chosen is as close to two years old as possible, weigh at least 50 pounds and reach 20″ in height. There is also a strict list of characteristics they must meet, most importantly, food motivated!
In the video Bo demonstrates some of the advanced skills, cover and brace, that service dogs learn to help support their veteran with PTSD. Brace is the reason for the 20 inch height requirement — to help a veteran get up from a sitting position if needed. And cover is to help a veteran while in a public place, such as a grocery store, from being startled from behind.
Seen everywhere at the camp are founder Shari Duval’s touches around the main living room to make the warriors feel at home for the three weeks they are living there. Many versions of the American flag adorn the walls, comforting quilts and pillows are within reach on the sprawling leather couches. Lots of movies and games are available for the two large-screen TVs. There’s also a weight room for the warriors to keep in shape during their stay.
There are two four-bedroom, two-bath suites for the warriors’ comfort. Next to each bed you’ll find a dog bed which supposedly the dogs never use as they sleep with their warriors. Some help them get through a difficult night even though they aren’t technically trained for that. Just a dog comforting their owner, as our dogs would do the same for us.
Technically, there is no scientifically proven data that service dogs help veterans recover from PTSD. But that is changing thanks to the HABRI Foundation funding collaborative research between Purdue University and K9s for Warriors. The research, “Pilot Study of the Effects of Service Dogs on Mental Health and Wellness in War Veterans with PTSD” is to scientifically evaluate the therapeutic efficacy of K9s for Warriors service dogs on the mental health and wellness of military veterans suffering from PTSD. Initial evidence supports the theory which is important because passing The PAWS Act depends on it.
The PAWS Act — Requires the VA to Provide Service Dogs to Support Veterans with PTSD
The PAWS Act would require the Veteran’s Administration (VA) to fund service dogs as a treatment option for veterans suffering from PTSD, TBI and/or MST. Currently the Veteran’s Administration (VA) refuses to fund this, despite warrior testimonials saying the VA prescribed them a service dog.
The first introduction of the bill in April 2016 did not pass. Reintroduced in May 2017, now HR2327, if passed the bill would require the VA to grant a voucher to each qualifying veteran to take to any service dog organization of their choosing. The cost of training a service dog averages $27,000, prohibitive to non-profits, limiting the number of available dogs. With funding from the VA, veterans could find treatment sooner due to more available dogs with non-profits, such as K9s, having the necessary funds to provide dogs. In K9s early years, veterans had a two-year wait to start their training. With K9s success they’ve grown and the waitlist is now just under one year.
Every day at Camp K9 staff see the improvements in veterans who can attest that their symptoms improved with their service dogs. Many say they’ve completely stopped or greatly reduced the number of medications they take to treat their symptoms. Currently, that’s the VA’s answer to PTSD and other traumatic symptoms, medications.
With the passage of the bill there is a chance that there will be an increased demand for service dogs, but with additional funding available, service dog organizations will become better equipped to handle the demand. Also K9s for Warriors program could easily be reproduced elsewhere, with a second location providing more dogs. Camp K9 recently opened a new kennel and are hiring new staff to grow and adapt to meet veteran’s needs, with or without The PAWS Act. Please contact your representatives and encourage them to support the bill.
Camp K9’s Kennels — from Rescued Dog to Service Dog Helping Support Veterans with PTSD
Camp K9’s two kennels feature 61 climate-controlled stalls for the dogs and five enclosed dog parks for training exercises and play. There is also a bone-shaped dog pool for the dogs to enjoy. Sometimes after a long, hot training day, and it’s HOT at the camp, when the warriors return to camp the service dog vests come off (the dogs), allowing them to enjoy just being a dog, playing in the water with the others.
The large kennels all have doors to their outside enclosure, with important shade. When you enter the kennels for the first time, after disinfecting your shoes in a tray by the door, you know why you’re here. The dogs. The dog and urine smell hits you hard the first time you enter despite the tight restrictions on hygiene imposed in the kennels.
To the left of the main door is the quarantine kennels. New dogs are kept in quarantine for 10 days before being allowed to socialize with the other dogs. They also have a separate, outdoor area for walks.
It’s quiet when you first enter the kennels, but as soon as the dogs hear there are visitors the barking begins. The shower curtains used to cover the kennel doors helps to keep it quiet if they can’t see you. But, by the time we left they were all barking! The K9 trainers have office space upstairs from the kennels. There is also housing at Camp K9 as there is always a trainer on duty 24-hours a day.
There are other service dog organizations that provide dogs for veterans, K9s for Warriors is definitely not the only one. But, the care in what they do, from staff assigned to process the applications, getting to know the veterans, to the K9 trainers, getting to know the dogs they’re training, to the final match up of warrior and dog, spending so many man hours making sure it’s the right match. By the time a warrior graduates and leaves with his service dog to go home, he’s been personally touched by every staff member. This caring and personal involvement of every staff member at K9s for Warriors sets them apart in providing service dogs for veterans suffering from PTSD and other military trauma.
Disclaimer: As a member of Bayer Animal Health’s Pet Influencer Team I have the opportunity to learn first hand about the programs that Bayer supports and their products that protect the health of our pets. Bayer sponsored our team’s trip to Jacksonville, Florida to visit the K9s for Warriors camp. I only share information with our readers that we hope they will find beneficial.