For veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), gaining a new companion in the form of a service dog can be the bridge to a better life.
K9 Partners for Patriots provides just that. The Brooksville nonprofit organization aims to eliminate veteran suicide through teaching active and former military vets diagnosed with service-related PTSD, a traumatic brain injury (TBI) or military sexual trauma (MST) how to train their own service dogs. Before the six-month program officially begins, pups choose their veterans.
Yes, you read that right. Just as in Harry Potter, where “the wand chooses the wizard,” dogs in the K9 Partners for Patriots program undergo a similarly magical process: Oftentimes, pups choose the veteran who will become their trainer.
First, dogs enter a room where a group of veterans wait. Pups sniff their way over to the vets and attach themselves to one, explained Mary Peter, founder of K9 Partners for Patriots. All veterans in the group are then given one-on-one time with each dog in a separate room to see if there’s a bond.
Even if a dog picks a veteran, said Peter, it doesn’t always mean it’s a match. If the organization feels that the individual dog isn’t a right fit for the veteran, they won’t pair them up. All dogs are placed with foster families first for prescreening before they ever interact with individuals in the program.
Service dogs also undergo a temperament evaluation to make sure they’re suitable to work with veterans in the program. Dogs nine months and younger do not qualify. Most of the dogs matched with vets are rescues or from local homeless shelters, which reinforces the idea that service dogs help save veterans, but veterans save dogs, too. Sometimes dogs that veterans already own are allowed into the program. To qualify, these pups must be non-aggressive and pass the organization’s temperament test.
Service dogs in the K9 Partners for Patriots program can be of a variety of breeds – one veteran even trained a tiny Dachshund. It’s less about the breed of dog that matters, and more about the nose. K9 Partners for Patriots service dogs are selected because they have the ability to smell and positively react to the scent of adrenaline.
Adrenaline is released when people become stressed or anxious, and during training service dogs learn how to soothe their veterans when they can smell their adrenaline rising. The pups then do everything they can to direct attention away from whatever triggered an anxious response in their veteran (a traumatic flashback, nightmare, etc.). This ability, when put into practice, is something that the K9 Partners for Patriots team has seen change veterans’ lives.
Veterans complete training homework each week at home with their service dogs. This one-on-one training is essential for dogs to learn key skills and form a partnership with their veterans. Once that bond develops, the attentiveness of the service dog to its veteran is 24/7.
The organization encourages program candidates to remember that like any other animal, a service dog will need regular veterinary care, attention and exercise to thrive in their household. It can take time for service dogs to adjust to their new environments and get acclimated to the training process.
Know someone who may be a good fit for the program? Visit k9partnersforpatriots.com or call (352) 397-5306 for more information.