More than two million soldiers have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. According to 2011 figures from the Department of Veterans Affairs, 476,515 veterans with primary or secondary diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) received treatment at VA medical centers and clinics. As America’s involvement in the global war on terror continues, an ever-increasing number of men and women return home bearing the scars of battle, both seen and unseen.
In Florida’s Ponte Vedra Beach, a woman named Shari Duval realized she could make a huge difference in the lives of these individuals while also focusing on an equally intense passion — saving animals — by creating a program that pairs veterans with rescued dogs. To date, Duval's K9s for Warriors program has transformed the lives of more than 80 veterans and shelter dogs through a unique training program that capitalizes on the undeniable bond between man and dog.
The Beginning of K9s for Warriors
Duval was spurred to form her organization out of personal experience. She served for years as a volunteer with the Wounded Warrior Project, and her own son — a veteran K9 police officer and former contractor for the Army — had personal struggles with PTSD after returning from two tours in Iraq. Duval and her family endeavored to find effective treatments to help her son and turned to canine assistance as a possibility. Duval decided to channel the two years of intensive research and training she experienced on behalf of her son into something beneficial for the veterans community at large, and in 2011 formally established K9s for Warriors.
Duval developed a rigorous application process requiring veterans to describe their personal background and the circumstances under which they developed PTSD and/or traumatic brain injuries (TBI). “We require a letter from a medical doctor or a psychologist with a diagnosis of PTSD or TBI and that a service dog would benefit the warrior,” says Sandi Capra, director of development for K9s for Warriors, adding that veterans must also show that they've been honorably discharged, provide references from their community or those with whom they served, and complete an interview and criminal background check.
It’s a lot to go through, but for K9s for Warriors graduates like U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal (1984–86) and Army Sergeant (2006–2009) Sheri Martinez, the overwhelming need to change her life superseded any logistical concerns.
“I spent four years locked inside my head and house,” she said.
“One day I ran out of dog food and I had no choice but to leave the house. I took my dog, Lola, with me to Petco and did not have a panic attack or any other issues. I was excited and thought I might be getting better. I tried going to Publix by myself and had a huge panic attack. I tried Petco again with Lola and again had no problems. I went home and immediately googled ‘service dog training in Jacksonville, Florida.’ K9s for Warriors came up first, and after I read their page, I felt like they were talking to me.”
Martinez was one of K9s for Warriors’ earliest graduates, and is a textbook case of the huge benefit service canines can provide to the humans who need them. “[The veterans] rely on the dog and the dog relies on them, and best of all, the dog gives unconditional love," Capra said. "Who doesn’t benefit from that?”
What the Program Involves
To date, 83 veteran-canine pairs have graduated from K9s for Warriors, each team finely trained for their particular situation. Veterans need not have prior experience with dogs — “[the veterans] are given extensive training while they are [at the K9s for Warriors facility] for three weeks, including the health and welfare of their service dog,” Capra says.
Classes are kept small — only four or five veterans each session. Certified trainers pair each individual with a canine, and, over 120 hours, human and dog go through the intimate and demanding process of training and bonding.
“By day three of the program [the veterans and their service dogs] are loaded into our van and reintroduced into civilian society. They train at the beach, parks, shops, restaurants, the airport, zoos," Capra says. By the end of three weeks, they spend a day as tourists.
After that, the veteran must pass a written test and the warrior-canine team must pass both the AKC Good Citizenship Test and the Public Safety Access Test in order to graduate.