At K9 Partners for Patriots, veterans save service dogs – and vice versa

For veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acquiring a new companion in the form of a service dog can be the bridge to a better life.

K9 Partners for Patriots provides exactly that. The Brooksville nonprofit aims to eliminate veteran suicide by teaching active and former military veterans diagnosed with service-related PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), or military sexual trauma (STD) how to train their own service dogs. Before the official start of the six-month program, the puppies choose their veterans.

Yes, you read that right. Just like in Harry Potterwhere “the wand chooses the helper”, dogs in the K9 Partners for Patriots program go through a similar magical process: often, the pups choose the veteran who will become their trainer.

First, dogs enter a room where a group of veterans are waiting. Puppies make their way to vets and bond with one, said Mary Peter, founder of K9 Partners for Patriots. All the veterans in the group then have a one-on-one with each dog in a separate room to see if there’s a connection.

Even if a dog picks a veteran, Peter says, that doesn’t always mean it’s a match. If the organization feels that the individual dog is not suitable for the veteran, they will not pair them. All dogs are first placed with foster families for pre-screening before they interact with people in the program.

Service dogs also undergo a temperament assessment to ensure they are suitable to work with program veterans. Dogs nine months and under are not eligible. Most dogs paired with vets are from local homeless rescues or shelters, which reinforces the idea that service dogs help save veterans, but veterans also save dogs. Sometimes dogs that veterans already own are allowed to participate in the program. To qualify, these puppies must be non-aggressive and pass the organization’s temperament test.

Service dogs in the K9 Partners for Patriots program come in a variety of breeds – one veteran even trained a small dachshund. It’s less the breed of dog that counts, and more the nose. K9 Partners for Patriots service dogs are selected because they have the ability to smell and react positively to the scent of adrenaline.

Adrenaline is released when people become stressed or anxious, and during training, service dogs learn to soothe their veterans when they can feel their adrenaline rush. The puppies then do whatever they can to distract from what triggered an anxious reaction in their veteran (traumatic flashback, nightmare, etc.). This ability, when put into practice, is something the K9 Partners for Patriots team has seen change the lives of veterans.

Veterans do their training homework each week at home with their service dogs. This one-on-one training is essential for dogs to learn key skills and form a partnership with their veterans. Once this bond has been developed, the service dog’s attention to its veteran is 24/7.

The organization encourages applicants to the program to remember that, like any other animal, a service dog will need regular veterinary care, attention and exercise to thrive in their home. It can take time for service dogs to adjust to their new surroundings and acclimate to the training process.

Do you know someone who might be a good fit for the program? Visit k9partnersforpatriots.com or call (352) 397-5306 for more information.

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