Approaching the entrance to K9 Partners for Patriots in Brooksville, I walk past a small SUV with the rear door raised. Inside, expectantly, sits a Dalmatian in a crate. We have “a moment.” Well, hello there, cutie pie! Her tail wags ever so slightly. Her handler, gathering things from the back seat, chuckles knowingly.
That’s one of the pleasures of visiting this organization. Seeing and hearing sweet-natured rescue dogs around you, all different sizes and breeds. They’re being tested and expertly trained for serious and important work, but seeing them and getting to interact with them is still a treat.
K9′s licensed clinical social worker, Damian Watson, feels the same way. Since his start in September 2021, and himself a military veteran, he has loved this work and this place. He said even on his most difficult workday, it’s better than the best day anywhere else, because he gets to work with his “two favorite populations – military vets and dogs.” And he draws from skills and instincts that he’s developed over many years in a number of different working environments: as an Army medic, a hospice counselor, a licensed practical nurse, a crisis counselor, working with substance abusers, counseling for the Veterans Treatment Court. Considering the depth of that path, and his Baltimore origins, it feels rather like destiny that he is in this place at this time, because every bit of that experience, along with his gentle, respectful demeanor, serves him at some point in his work here.
Everyone at this place – staff, volunteers and K9 trainers – is in it for the love of this work, and Watson is no exception. Founder & Executive Director of Training Operations Mary Peter knows she made the right decision when she brought him onboard in 2021. She explained, “Damian has made it a point to spend one-on-one time checking in with each veteran that comes in for training. Additionally, he contacts our graduates via email and phone calls to see how they are progressing and let them know we are all here for them. He is a vital component for helping our veterans through their challenges and makes himself available 24/7/365. He has become an invaluable asset.”
One sign of the nature of the work he does is hiding in plain sight in his office: a dog crate. During individual sessions in his office, the veteran’s dog will be by their side either on a mat, or in the crate. If feelings during a session become intense, the dog will approach the vet. Watson says that behavior looks different for every dog (licking the face, climbing into the lap, standing with front paws on the vet’s shoulders). The vet might be annoyed at the interruption at first, but in the training process, the dog learns to persist, while the vet learns to recognize what the dog is trying to do, and why. Even if the vet insists everything is fine, the dog is right there insisting it isn’t. (Busted!) Ultimately these interactions strengthen the bond between the pair, and deepen the vet’s self-awareness, helping them understand and manage their feelings and triggers, and get the most benefit out of therapy, in both individual and group sessions.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and military sexual trauma (MST) are not “curable” in the traditional sense … but with practice, persistence and the help of a service dog and dedicated professionals like Damian Watson, the effects of and problems caused by these conditions can be managed. If you think this place and this method would be a good fit for you, or you know of a vet you think would benefit from this program, contact K9 Partners for Patriots at (352) 397-5306, reach out on their website at k9partnersforpatriots.com or visit their office at 15322 Aviation Loop Drive in Brooksville.