Recently, I was privileged to witness a training class for dogs and their masters at K9 Partners for Patriots (K9P4P). The group of veterans consisted of two women and five men. Several trainers were there to put the dogs and their masters through a number of exercises and expose them to various scenarios.
K9 Partners for Patriots is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded in 2014. Mary Peter, a certified master dog trainer (CMDT) with more than thirty years of experience, started the program because she believed that properly trained dogs could save the lives of many veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress.
From one enrollee in the program, Ron Flaville, who eventually became a certified trainer and CEO, it has grown to 759 current enrollees. In all, 380 men and women veterans have graduated from the program in the past eleven years, which is limited to military veterans who have PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, or military sexual trauma.
The training session I attended was the ninth week of a 24-week program in which the dog is trained to be on “active duty” 24/7 and learns to become attuned to the veteran’s anxiety levels by detecting increases in their adrenaline levels. The dogs are taught other skills, such as not responding to distractions while they’re out with the veterans and immediate obedience to their owners’ commands.
One of the exercises involved a trainer walking around the dogs and veterans squeezing an annoying squeaky toy. The dogs did not budge from their position. At one point, a trainer blew a loud whistle, and the dogs didn’t react. Another exercise was having two veterans approach each other and shake hands. This teaches the dogs not to interact with each other. In another exercise, the veterans turned their backs to their dogs, and again, the dogs barely moved a muscle. The service dogs are also trained not to interact with strangers who might approach the pair.
Most of the dogs who join the program are rescued from shelters. Any breed of dog can become a service dog, but only a fraction of those that are screened for the program pass muster. After evaluation in-house, the dog spends a few weeks with a foster family who actively cares for it and gathers critical “intel” that helps K9P4P learn more.
This way, they can see if the dog has the temperament and, most likely, the intelligence to take on this important role. Typically, the dogs are anywhere from six to nine months old up to three years old before they begin their training.
Like some children, a dog—even a well-trained one—can become hyperactive at times. In this case, the veterans practice having the dog stay in a down position, sometimes for an hour or more. This calms their brains. At all times in training, the veteran has to be firm and assertive with their dog.
K9 Partners for Patriots is always looking for foster families. The dogs have had physical checkups and all their shots. The organization provides all the food and other supplies, and if the dog needs medical care, they pay for it. To apply to be a foster parent, go to www.k9partnersforpatriots.com and click on the tab that says “Support.” Then, on the dropdown menu, click on the tab that says “Become a Foster.”
A program such as K-9 Partners for Patriots is a win-win situation in so many ways. Veterans suffering from these issues are helped. Dogs who might have otherwise been put to sleep are given another chance at life and an opportunity to be useful. Families of veterans and the community as a whole also benefit from restoring a productive person to society.