Becoming a K9s For Warriors service dog is a more intricate process than most may think. Depending on the age of the dog, the journey will differ slightly, but each dog must pass several steps before graduating with its warrior. K9s For Warriors requires that the canine pass through these steps to ensure they're the best lifelong partner possible.
1. Dogs we bring in from shelters or accept as donations/owner surrenders must be under two years of age. This is important because: (a) the younger the dog is, the more likely it is to be healthy; (b) the younger a dog is, the more trainable it is; (c) youth supports the longevity of the relationship with its warrior.
2. After accepting a dog, we administer health and behavioral assessments. Does it have heart worms? Hip problems? Is it aggressive towards other dogs or people? Does it have fear issues? If the answer to any of these is yes, it will likely be deemed unfit to be a service dog, in which case we will put it up for adoption.
3. When we receive a dog that is under a year old – which we often do - it will go to a puppy raiser or foster. These volunteers are an invaluable part of our program, as dogs are not allowed into our kennels for formal training until they reach one year of age. The raisers and fosters come to regular meetings on campus to train with other pups and meet with the other volunteers. They also assist with teaching the puppies basic social skills and obedience before returning them to us. Returning them is a highly emotional time for these volunteers. They form bonds with the puppies, being the first to raise them after they leave their mother. See this YouTube video of one of our incredible volunteers explaining how she does it!
4. When the dogs enter the kennel for their formal training, they are paired with a Dog Trainer. This is when the dogs learn all the essential commands for becoming a certified service dog. Trainers take them all around campus daily, and to some public locations a few times per week. Dogs training in the kennel typically spend 3-6 months there, where volunteers help bathe them, and both volunteers and kennel staff give them daily play time and ensure they’re kept healthy.
5. Once the trainer is confident that the dog is fully trained, it’s time to make the match with the warrior! The Dog Trainers and Warriors Trainers meet to discuss the best warrior-dog team pairings based on the personality of each. Warriors meet their dogs the day after arriving to Camp K9, and class begins!
6. For the next three weeks, the new warrior-dog teams are attached to one another 24/7 to form their bond. During this time, the warrior learns how to utilize his/her new battle buddy to help in the recovery of his/her PTSD, and the dog learns about its warrior. Warrior Trainers take the teams out to a variety of public places every day to help the warriors reintegrate into society, and help them build confidence using the peer-to-peer setting of the class. They’re also prepared for what life will be like once they return home with their new service dogs.
7. At the end of the three weeks, the teams must all go through a public access test the day before graduation. Then comes the celebration! A graduation ceremony is held, to which all family members and dog sponsors are invited. The ceremonies are also open to the public. The dog has successfully completed its training and is ready to loyally serve its warrior!