First of all, in honor of Veterans Day, we want to tell every veteran reading this blog post that we respect you and appreciate all your service and sacrifice to our country. We know that without you, we could not be the great and free country that we are. Go USA!
You already know that K9s For Warriors specializes in training service dogs for veterans with PTSD, TBI and/or MST.
But you may not know that our program goes far beyond a well-trained service dog and three weeks of immersive training for each warrior-K9 team. In fact, we have extensive wrap-around services that add to the unique quality of our program. As soon as a veteran’s application is accepted – and often even before – we help them with nearly everything they need as they work to address and overcome military-related trauma.
Not only are we there for them from the moment of application and throughout training at one of our two campuses, but when warriors graduate and go back home, we don’t just tell them “Welcome to the K9s Family!” to be nice - we mean it! Like a family, we continue to be there in any way they may need us. To date, that includes 580 warrior-K9 teams!
To describe how we do that, we interviewed our remarkable Warrior Relations team. This team of five (which includes two Marine vets and one Navy) provides a host of support to our warriors from the moment they submit their application until… well, there is no end.
Can you tell everyone what the Warrior Relations team does?
“Our team does everything from application to alumni, and everything in between.
Before warriors even arrive at our campus to attend class, we are checking in with them throughout the 12 to 18-month wait time. We prepare them for what to expect and make sure their plans are set to travel here. If they have financial hardship arriving to our program, we work with Hero Miles or a similar program to help them get here.
Once the warriors are here in class, we start building trust and rapport right away. The Warrior Trainers are in charge of their training with their service dog, but we interact with them as much as we can. We talk one-on-one, go out with each class at least once during public training, and in general try to hang out with them. We build the relationship here while they’re in class so that after leaving they feel like they can get in touch about anything.”
How do you help our warriors after they graduate?
“We immediately invite them to an exclusive social media group to interact with their K9s Family and other graduates. There, they can ask questions, share feel-good stories, successes and struggles. They know it’s a supportive network where they can get encouragement and no judgement.
We also have a system in place for follow-up interviews and virtual home visits. Every few months we send an email asking how they’re doing, if they’ve had any major life events, or things like that. In almost all of the follow-ups they just want to say, ‘thank you’ and tell us how much better their life has been.
We help them with any type of crisis, public access issue, legal issue, Trupanion service dog insurance, and work with a ton of other nonprofits for resources that K9s doesn’t provide, but which our graduates may need. We even help spouses, caregivers, other-era veterans and civilians with PTSD who call us asking for help. We never leave anyone who calls empty-handed.”
What’s one or two of your favorite success stories of the veterans who’ve come through our program?
Jess: “My absolute favorite success story is about a warrior who came here who had terrible physical ailments - shaking, stuttering, wouldn’t make eye contact. After he met his dog, he didn’t shake once. He didn’t stutter. He wouldn’t stop smiling. He said, ‘Thank you, you given me my life back.’ He’s now going out in public again, he’s lost weight – he’s completely changed.’
Mike: “I think about a warrior who used to have nightmares all the time and think about suicide monthly. Coming in, he didn’t trust us, the program, or the dog we paired him with. Two weeks in, he did a complete turn-around. He told us, ‘Now, that’s all in the past. I don’t think about suicide anymore because of my dog. Things that would have upset me don’t even bother me anymore.’ He can’t stop thanking us. This is a guy who came in doubting and resisting everything we were trying to do for him.“
How do you actively reach veterans or active duty members eligible for our program?
“When you [a vet] get out, you’re still connected to the people who are in. We are trying to get the message to the veterans fresh out of the military because they might still know someone in the military who is in crisis. We call this our upstream approach: get to the vets before they even know they have issues. Reach them as soon as they get out. To do that we attend veteran outreach events. We also work with a lot of the local colleges to reach the student veteran population because many of them get out and go straight into college.
We also get all kinds of different messages from veterans who need resources other than a service dog. We try to link them up for whatever help they need, even if it’s not for our program. If we’re not the fit for them, we’ll find what is.”
What’s the best part about being on the Warrior Relations team?
Sam: “We get to see them on Sunday when they first arrive, meaning we see them at their worst. We’ve only spoken a handful of times before they got here. We see them shaking, nervous, arms crossed, smoking cigarettes nonstop, unable to make eye contact with anyone. And then we see them on graduation day. It’s literally a different person. They’ve lowered their guard. They’re all smiling, hugging staff members, interacting with everyone and thanking everyone.”
Mike: “Graduates feel like this is a family. Most of our team has only been here for two years, so we have graduates that we haven’t even met, yet they still call us and ask for advice. They still trust us and stay in touch because they know we’re the people who take care of them. They still feel like we’re a part of their family.”
If you are a post-9/11 diagnosed with PTSD, TBI or MST, you can apply to our program here. If you are an other-era veteran, spouse, caregiver, friend, or just someone who cares and are in need of other help, please visit our Resources page.