While Veterans Day celebrates the men and women who have served in the U.S. military, a number of those heroes deserve special attention throughout the year, requiring services so they’re able to readjust to civilian life.
One organization doing its part to fulfill their various needs is K9s for Warriors. Established in 2011, the Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida-based nonprofit provides service dogs to disabled veterans who served on 9/11 or after and have been clinically diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or military sexual trauma.
Once a warrior is accepted to participate, he or she goes through a free training program for three weeks in Ponte Vedra Beach or at the other K9s for Warriors facility, which is about 90 miles west, near Gainesville. Warriors are matched with suitable dogs — about 90% come from shelters or are owner-surrendered — that go through training, too.
On its website, K9s for Warriors writes that with each pair of graduates, it saves “two lives; we rescue the dog, and the dog rescues the warrior.” Through October 2019, that’s been 1,100 dogs rescued and 580 warrior graduates.
When it comes to training the canines, “we spend a lot of time getting to know the dog and work hard to find what motivates each dog, whether it is a specific treat, toys or affection from the trainer,” said April Johnson, a K9s for Warriors trainer since September 2017. “We start slowly working on basic obedience and celebrate the small victories, [using] small approximations as we build up to a complete behavior. We use positive reinforcement as our primary training method. Once we get the ball rolling and the dog understands that there is time to play and time to work, we train the basic commands and impulse control on campus until they are consistent on these behaviors.”
After a foundation is built, Johnson says the next stage is public access training and learning specific service commands. “We start slow at quiet places to get the dogs acclimated to the world around us and slowly build on where we take them,” she explained. “By the time the dogs are ready to go to class, they are spending the majority of the day off campus being exposed to many different places, people and everything that our warrior may encounter.”
Johnson has particularly fond memories of Bolt, who was matched with U.S. Army veteran Maurice Brown.
“He was such a sweet, calm and loving dog,” she recalled. “We ran him through our temperament test, and he breezed by with flying colors. When he arrived back on campus, I had the privilege of training him. I had so much fun working with Bolt. He picked up on commands very easily, and nothing seemed to faze him out in public.”
What began as an “unsure and cautious” relationship between Bolt and Brown grew into “a strong bond” over the course of their K9s for Warriors training, said Johnson.
“A very rewarding, but bittersweet moment for me was at graduation,” she added. “When I was saying goodbye, congratulations and best wishes, Maurice noted that Bolt was proudly looking at him rather than looking to me. It was such an amazing moment to see that Bolt and I had gone from shelter to service dog, and now at graduation, he was fulfilling his purpose.”
Brian Steere, who served in the U.S. Army from August 2008 to October 2012, graduated from the K9s for Warriors program in September 2018 and was matched with Odysseus, aka Odie, a German Shorthair Pointer.
“Odie is my reason for getting up every morning,” said Steere. “He relies on me just as much as I do him. I wake up with a smile every day because in the morning my best friend comes and loves on me and shows that he cares about me.”
Because of Odie, “I got my life back,” added Steere. “I can go places where normally I wouldn’t, my nightmares have drastically decreased, I smile more and my stress levels are the lowest they have ever been.”
Top: April Johnson with Bolt.