Two NOVA-area organizations that are making strides in bringing Vets and rescue dogs together

By Michelle Schroeder Madigan, Christopher Baity, and Joseph Grammer

Pretty much everyone in the world can appreciate dogs. They love us unconditionally—they look out for us, they wait for us to get home just so they can lick our faces. They’re the members of our family who play the most and complain the least (although when they need to go out at 4 in the morning, it can be a little rough).

On a different note, we can all appreciate our warriors in the U.S. Armed Forces. They look out for us too, and they do a tough job without any cameras or glamour. They protect people for a living, no matter what, even if it hurts them to do it.

Now that we’ve established how crucial these groups are on their own, let’s take a look at the love and healing that arises from their bond together. The relationship between a Vet and their pet can be a special thing, and it’s time we highlighted that.

We’ll take a look at two NOVA-area organizations that are making strides in bringing Vets and rescue dogs together: Pets for Vets and Semper K9.

Pets for Vets

Veterans challenged with PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), or other behavioral health issues might not use prosthetics or adaptive medical devices, but their invisible injuries can be equally painful.

These neurological and psychological wounds are real, and they can prevent Veterans from engaging in simple, daily activities like walking to a park, attending a party, or going out to eat. These challenges significantly decrease quality of life for our nation’s warriors.

Clinical studies have shown that a specially trained Companion Animal can help manage psychological or traumatic injury. A Companion Animal can reduce stress, depression, hyper vigilance, and anxiety, leading to significantly increased quality of life.

The Washington DC Metro Area Chapter of Pets for Vets uses the power of the human-animal bond to heal Veterans’ emotional wounds and offer a second chance for shelter animals. Volunteer Trainers rescue and train dogs (as well as other animals) from DC Metro Area shelters to become Companion Animals for local Servicemen and -women who are still coping with traumatic service experiences, or with the transition to civilian life.

Pets for Vets Volunteer Trainers must finish an extensive program (in addition to their Karen Pryor Academy or Certified Professional Dog Trainer Certifications) to learn how to best communicate with injured Veterans. They work to isolate the Veteran’s unique needs and tailor the Companion Animal to those needs, so that the dog becomes an integral part of a Veteran’s recovery journey. The Trainers meet with each Veteran several times prior to selecting a shelter animal. Companion Animals may be trained to awaken a Veteran from frequent nightmares, create a “buffer zone” in front of their Veteran in a crowd, or just be an attentive listener when needed.

“I get to use my skills as a trainer in the happiest of manners—I get to choose a great rescue dog and I get to train it properly, so that the Vet doesn’t have to worry. It’s a trainer’s dream scenario.” Pets for Vets Trainer Desiree Lomer-Clarke has had the opportunity to complete the Pets for Vets training and work with DC-area Veterans, matching them with their perfect companion. Desiree is the founder of Arlington Dog Nanny, an enhanced walking service that offers emotional and intellectual enrichment for their clients, along with daily exercise and playtime.

Desiree’s most recent case included a Veteran and her family with two young children. The Veteran experiences PTSD, panic attacks, anxiety, and regular nightmares. Having a Companion Dog by her side will likely reduce the symptoms of these issues and potentially eliminate some of them. Desiree especially enjoys working with the family because she “loves their enthusiasm about something I care about so deeply.”

The cost of creating a successful match between a Veteran and their new companion is approximately $6,000. This includes the costs of adopting the animal, veterinary services, spay/neuter, microchipping, training aides, boarding during training, and a Welcome Kit that’s delivered with the companion to their new home. The Welcome Kit contains all the things a new friendship will need to succeed: bowls, beds, treats, toys, and lots of love.

Pets for Vets Washington DC Metro keeps their operating costs relatively low by operating as an all-volunteer organization. There are no administrative costs to the organization, so all donations are applied to creating positive and lasting companionship for both the animal and the Veteran.

“I believe that the organization offers a rewarding opportunity for all area Trainers. It’s a chance to gain additional training in areas that are not ordinarily available to them,” says Pets for Vets Washington DC Metro Chapter Director Michelle Schroeder Madigan. It’s also an opportunity “to make a real and lasting positive change in not only the life of a shelter animal, but that of a Veteran in our community who has suffered for their service to our country.”

Semper K9

Combat Veteran-founded and -operated, Semper K9’s mission is to enhance the quality of life for wounded or critically ill members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families by providing them assistance dogs free of charge. These dogs come from shelters, rescue operations, and families, but are then trained to assist Service Members with psychiatric alert and mobility challenges.

Semper K9 also trains and provides facility dogs and comfort/crisis dogs for eligible programs and institutions. All Semper K9 dogs undergo a rigorous regimen that includes cross-training in therapy.

Labeled “Mental Health-Mobility Service Dogs,” these highly capable canines are trained to the specific needs of their disabled Veteran. The dogs can respond to and interrupt behaviors related to a disability, for example distracting the Veteran or physically removing them from a situation. Other forms of assistance include seeking out a caregiver or family member within the home, or locating and retrieving medical equipment or personal items. Picking up specific objects, responding to emotional outbursts, and turning on lights have become common tasks that Semper K9 service dogs are able to offer.

Semper K9 utilizes K9 Coach volunteers to train service dog candidates. These volunteers train their service dog in-training for 6-18 months. The training is conducted in the human’s normal day-to-day lives, including commutes, co-worker interactions, and family events. Service dogs also attend weekly training classes at Camp Semper K9 or other training environments around the community.

With the help of over 150 volunteers and 25 K9 coaches, Semper K9 has placed more than 30 Service dogs around the country and abroad, including Japan and Hawaii.

Most of Semper K9’s service dogs in-training are named in honor or memory of a Veteran or Service Member. These “namesakes” are selected through a nomination process that considers military service and actions after service. Many are named in honor of a Service Member who made the ultimate sacrifice, losing their life in combat, but also those who survived and now give back to their Veteran community. One volunteer stated, “When a Soldier or Marine dies in combat, their name stops being mentioned. This is a way for their memory to live on.”

Veterans who receive service dogs complete their final training within the local community, including attending events in DC and Baltimore: Awesome Con, GI Film Festival, Washington Nationals games, Baltimore Ravens games, etc.

Veterans have received their service dogs in grand fashion, including on the field at a New York Giants game. These receptions are meant to immerse the Veteran in a real-life situation to prepare them for normal life outside the control of the Semper K9 trainers. Often these events are requested by the Veteran or family, since they have missed attending them as a family or in their normal day-to-day life. This sets the stage for the Veteran’s relationship with the service dog.

When Veterans begin training with the program, they go through a fast-paced version of what the service dogs have been in for the previous 12 months. Veterans will train with new puppies and then graduate to older service dogs in-training before finishing placement with their specific service dog. This pairing and training process for these veterans may take up to six months. After completing certification and standards testing, they graduate as a group as a service dog team.

These training standards include over 200 hours of instruction and practical training in proper service dog handling, care, and obedience. Many additional classes offered are dog first aid, mental-health first aid, and navigating the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

All training and services are provided at no cost to the Veteran, and all training is conducted by Semper K9 volunteers and staff.

Semper K9 currently graduates as many as 20 service dog teams each year but plans to move up to around 48 teams. Intended for completion in Summer 2019, the 33-acre “Camp Semper K9” lies adjacent to Marine Corps Base, Quantico, and will host an 8,000 square-foot training facility for all Veterans and participants to work with service dogs in a controlled, yet natural environment. Amenities will include outdoor classrooms, living spaces, and recreational and therapeutic activity centers.

Semper K9 will keep exploring better ways to help Veterans while also rescuing dogs who need a loving home.

A Bond That Benefits Both

Pets for Vets and Semper K9 train and facilitate loving bonds between Veterans and their service dogs. This is not a small or easy task—it takes a great deal of time and effort to reach out to Vets, find rescue dogs, and pair them together in a way that can help them both.

We all know that dogs can be avenues for our own healing and comfort, but we can’t forget that we also improve our dogs’ lives. In particular, these NOVA-area Veterans and Service Members are giving rescue dogs a newfound purpose and an endless source of love—in other words, these dogs get people who need and care about them just as much as they care about people.

The work of organizations like Pets for Vets and Semper K9 can remind us that humans and dogs are engaged in a symbiotic, familial relationship. This has been true ever since we first domesticated these beautiful pets, and it is true of our country’s Veterans and their service dogs. ND

Please contact the Washington DC Metro Area Chapter of Pets for Vets for additional information about how you can help their mission: www.petsforvets.com/washington-dc. Michelle Schroeder Madigan proudly serves as Chapter Director. Pets for Vets Trainers are offered a stipend for their time and all related expenses are covered—they also have the option to advertise their affiliation with the organization. Please also visit www.arlingtondognanny.com for any walking services you might need.

Semper K9 is a 501 c(3) non-profit that operates nationwide and internationally. It was founded in 2014 by USMC Combat Veteran (and Military Working Dog Handler) Christopher Baity and American Service Dogs Magazine publisher Amanda Baity. Please learn more at semperk9.org.

Joseph Grammer is Managing Editor for NOVADog Magazine. He lives in Alexandria, VA, but grew up in New Jersey with a bunch of adopted dogs, including a mutt (Blizzard) who he found on the street.