*This is a personal account and opinion piece from the wife of one of our warrior-canine teams, Jeff & Holly. Jeff's wife, Tiffany, expresses beautifully many topics that we often talk about. Her personal account is so moving that we had to share it. This has not been edited or changed at all, except for correcting the spelling of K9s For Warriors.*
"After 16 years of service in the military, in 2016, my husband was medically retired due to physical injuries, hearing loss, a TBI and PTSD. While he served in the military, he deployed overseas 4 times; was away often for multiple field missions, he trained with the National Guard for overseas missions (which involved a lot of travel to different states), and having to attend many funeral details. While serving his tours overseas, my husband fought many battles, and was forced to face death repeatedly, more than anyone should ever have too.
The day after his retirement was final, my husband nearly drowned in a boating accident, it was surreal. All of his brushes with death overseas that he so badly wanted to escape from mentally; so he decides to do the one hobby he loved, going out fishing to escape reality for awhile, and it nearly took his life. I remember it like yesterday, just a dreary, cold, February day. But he made it, because it was not his time. God gave him another chance.
Soon, I started to notice changes in my husband, he was not happy, it seemed as if the life had just been drained out of him. He looked like he had aged overnight. His family even noticed and started to express concerns to me that following Thanksgiving. I would get so frustrated, because I knew from my studies about PTSD that he was suffering from it, but I also knew that I could not be his counselor, I could not be his savior. As much as he hated it, I pushed him over and over to go to the VA for counseling, and psychiatric services.
Anyone familiar with the VA knows exactly how much of a struggle it is to deal with the VA. And when your watching your loved one get so frustrated with these people who are supposed to be educated on this subject in particular, and they end up making the problem worse, it drives you insane. As much as they angered him, I pushed him to keep going. Sometimes he would have a good appointment, sometimes not so much. My husband was so crippled by his PTSD, that he could not leave the house without me, and most days he did not want to leave the house at all.
I would go to his appointments and these doctors and nurses were so rude, I could not believe that this was the treatment that my husband received, after everything that he had given to his country, this is how his country takes care of him? He began drinking more often, it started by just having a couple at night, to having multiple drinks throughout the day. And then I found a bottle of Jim Beam hidden in his truck. I was praying for an answer. I just wanted to break in two.
I felt like I was failing. I was trying to talk with him, I was doing everything I thought I could possibly do, but it just was not enough. And then the fear of losing him forever overcame me. I racked my brain, what more could I do? I knew I was missing something, I would continuously pray, please Lord, please tell me what am I missing? And then it hit me, a dog. I told my husband about my idea, and how it would give him a healthy hobby. He thought about it for a moment, and then mentioned an organization that he had heard of before through an army buddy of his called; K9s For Warriors. I looked into, and emailed them for information.
From that day on our lives changed forever. My husband filled out all the paperwork and was accepted, but was told he would not be able to go to the facility until the following October. So, the Lord blessed us again. My husband got a call and they said that there was an opening in the February class, and he was in. That is where my husband met his life preserver, Holly.
Jeff and Holly bonded instantly, they trained together for three weeks and became inseparable. Holly has changed my husbands life in so many ways. I cannot even explain, it was like night and day. Holly is not a “Pet” she is a member of the family. We are allowed to love on her for short periods of time, but she is 100% my husbands dog.
He is the only one that can feed, bathe, walk, and take her out anywhere. She is so playful and overwhelmingly loving with him at home, but when they go out, and my husband gives her the command that “It is time to go to work” and slips her vest on, she knows she is working and has to obey all of her commands that she has been taught. She knows she cannot even use the restroom until that vest comes off. She knows she is not to be seen or heard. If we were at a restaurant and Holly began to act up (which she has never done, she just lays under the table sleeping) my husband would immediately remove her from the premises, the manager would not need to get involved.
This is because of the rules that K9s teaches, these are rules that are taken seriously. Because service dogs save lives, and in order to keep this program going, we have to follow the rules, we have to advocate, and we have to show people how these amazing animals need to be recognized. We need this so that more and more veterans can get the benefits that our family has experienced from being blessed with having Holly in our lives. I honestly have never in my life seen a dog as well behaved as Holly. And I have never seen a dog with so much love and admiration in her eyes for her owner as Holly, and the same goes for my husband.
Just because the training at the facility has ended the training does not stop. Jeff and Holly just recently had to re-certify, and will have to continue to do so, in order to show that Holly is making progress and continuing to do well. My husband has a certification card for the both of them, if a business owner wants proof, or is curious, my husband has proof to show that Holly is a trained professional service dog.
They are the perfect match, I cannot even raise my voice or she gets scared for him and runs to his side all sad looking, lol!! Holly literally saved our family and my husband, I want to advocate for service dogs whenever I have the chance to. I saw the opportunity to share my opinion here and I was hoping that I would be able to. I really want people to understand the true difference between a “Service Dog” and an “Emotional Support Animal.”
K9s For Warriors was founded by Shari Duval (Mom) in 2011. K9s is a non-profit that is solely dedicated to providing trained service dogs to veterans who are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, and/or sexual trauma that a service member may have endured due to military service post 9/11.
K9s For Warriors' goal is to give the veteran the empowerment they need to return to a civilian lifestyle, to aid veterans with regaining their dignity and independence.
People who are not familiar with the tragedies that our soldiers/veterans endure while overseas, or even here at home, may not understand how a dog could possibly make a difference in someone’s life. That is why we need to help people to understand by spreading the truth. It is important for people to know that a “Service Dog” is not an “Emotional Support Animal.” There are many differences between the two. A service dog is professionally trained before he/she is even matched with his/her warrior.
Once the warrior attends the training facility, the warrior is then paired with the service dog that best fits the veterans needs. There are instances when the service dog and veteran are not a perfect fit, which in this case the veteran will be matched with another service dog. Once matched, the service dog and veteran train together for three weeks at the facility, and outside of the facility, in order to make sure that they will be a perfect match. Any dogs who go through training, and cannot fully meet the training regulations, are adopted out. It is imperative that the service dog and the warrior will come home, and their bond will continue to grow. And that when they come home, training continues, and the service dog continues to excel and perform without any issues.
Emotional support animals are usually not trained animals. People can get a note from a doctor saying that the individual uses the animal for emotional support based on a disability. But, a doctors note does not qualify the animal as a service animal. A service animal has to be directly trained to serve the individuals disability. Under Title II and Title III of the ADA, any species of animal used as an emotional support animal, regardless of training is not considered a service animal. These support animals can provide companionship, help to alleviate loneliness, depression, anxiety, and possible phobias, but do not have the specialized training necessary to perform the tasks needed to assist people with specific disabilities (Brennan, 2019). People may feel they have the right to bring their animal with them out to public places, in order to help alleviate their disability. Unfortunately, if an animal is not properly trained; the animal may misbehave, cause problems, and can attack without warning, etc. If the animal is not professionally trained, and does cause a problem, people may only look at that one animal as an example, and believe that it is too dangerous for animals to be allowed in public places. Service Dogs are Accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI). K9s For Warriors is a member of the Association of Service Dogs Providers for Military Veterans. The cost of the program per dog is approximately $27,000 to train, and place a service dog; but, no veteran will ever have to pay for the program, only travel to and from the facility.
There are organizations that may be able to help with travel expenses. Unlike an “Emotional Support Animal”, a “Service Dog” is specifically trained to help veterans who suffer from PTSD. K9s was founded specifically to combat the crisis of veteran suicide rates. At least 22 veterans commit suicide everyday, K9s is instrumental in helping veterans in the recovery process from trauma resulting from military service.
The program details for K9s For Warriors include;
-An average waitlist time to attend the facility of 14-18 months
-The dogs that are used at K9s are from either rescue organizations, have been surrendered by their owners, or from shelters with a high-kill rate. This program is not just saving a Warrior, but a Canine as well, making Warrior-Canine Teams.
-K9s For Warriors' training program includes 120 hours of complete hands-on training with certified canine trainers. The dogs have housing, meals, veterinarian care, equipment for training, and contemporary support. All of this is provided to Warriors at no cost.
-The facility is located in Ponte Vedra, Florida, and serves veterans from all 50 states.
The Results of The K9s Program;
-73% of graduates have reported an overall improvement in their health
-92% of graduates have reported that they have been able to reduce medications for PTSD
-85% of graduates have been able to handle everyday anxiety better
-82% of graduates have reported a decrease in suicidal thinking
-77% of graduates have reported a reduction in nightmares
-73% of graduates have reported having the ability to cope better with flashbacks
-93% of graduates are able to create a bond with their canine that benefits them both physically and mentally
There has recently been a study done by Purdue University showing the effectiveness of service dogs, and the positive effects that the service dogs provide on individuals with disabilities. This article is a breakthrough, showing further proof that service dogs should be considered a medical form of therapy. Hopefully, more research will be done to further show the benefits of service dogs. This could help our veterans to gain access to service dogs through the VA. This could also help with raising awareness of the effectiveness of the beneficial need for more programs like this, which could help with the costs that come for programs like K9s For Warriors to stay functional. Funding is needed, service dogs are needed, awareness is needed. Please, help me to spread this as far as it can possibly go! Thank you!!
Holly and Jeff’s Graduation Date- 2-22-18
Holly’s Sponsor- Bayer
Meaning of Holly’s Name- Through a Twitter Naming Contest that Bayer held During the Holidays
Name of Holly’s Rescue Shelter- Lake City Humane
Brennan, J. (2019). ADA National Network. https://adata.org
Purdue University. (2019). Service dogs benefit the well-being of their handlers, research shows. https://www.purdue.edu
*This originally appeared in Richmond Hill 411.