With a national suicide rate for American Veterans of twenty per day, and twenty-two daily for vets with PTSD, there needs to be an intervention. In addition, thousands of homeless dogs are euthanized at shelters each month. Could one help the other?
“I’ve had such a passion for dogs from the time I could say “dawg,” Mary Peters of K9 Partners for Patriots shared, “I met a gentleman when I was working at a dental office that was a professional trainer and trained in Germany. He did police dogs in obedience and he took me under his wing. I apprenticed for a year and worked for him for another year. Then I went on to start my own business and graduated from National Canine in Columbus Ohio, which is a college accredited school for dog trainers. I stayed there and got certified as a Master Dog Trainer.”
How it Began
Mary had the Stillwater Dog Training school in Brooksville. She worked with dog owners of all types, but noticed how veterans would come to her classes because they were told to get a dog to help with their PTSD, but then the vet would not complete the classes.
“I began contacting the veterans to encourage their return to class. Inevitably, they had missed class because they were having trouble getting out of their home and connecting with civilians in the lesson. I began to see that there was a need for a program targeting these heroes,” Mary explained.
At one point, Dr. Diane Scotland-Coogan, of Saint Leo University contacted Mary about a veteran she was working with who had severe PTSD to ask if a dog might help him. Diane came to visit and ended up assisting in creating the nonprofit.
K9 Partners for Patriots received its official 501c3 designation in November 2014. Stillwater Dog Training was closed, and Mary committed her God-given talents and drive to helping our Veterans recover from post-traumatic stress (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and military sexual trauma (MST) through the experience of training and caring for their own service dog.
Mary closed her Stillwater facility to concentrate solely on helping military veterans and their families.
Training the Trainer is Key
There are approximately 14 facilities that train dogs to help veterans cope with their service-induced disabilities throughout the United States, but K9 Partners for Patriots trains the serviceman to train his or her own dog. “As far as we know,” Greg Laskoski, Communications Director, states, “we are the only facility that is working with the Veteran in this way.”
As a military wife, Mary was sensitive to the needs of these veterans to achieve and compete.
“I was seeing brave men and women returning home from war with a life that’s shattered. Brave men and women, I’m talking about Army Rangers, Special Ops, and Green Berets; Colonels to infantry.”
They were isolated in their homes, or in a room in their home. Trapped by PTSD and needing help to regain their dignity. These are high-achieving people.
And then there were all these dogs in shelters and rescues throughout the area who needed someone to advocate for them. The dogs K9 Partners for Patriots recruits for their service dog training program for veterans are procured from area shelters, rescues, private donors, and breeders.
“Pasco County Animal Services has placed more than 15 dogs with K9P4P and is proud to continue helping K9P4P find suitable canine candidates for this wonderful program,” states Michael Shumate of PCAS.
How the Program Works
The K9P4P programs run for nineteen weeks and are taught to “squads” of ten veterans, each with a chosen canine partner. The veteran is required to attend each one-hour weekly class and then spend at least 2 hours a day training their partner. The two-hour daily training must be broken into increments of 10 to 15-minutes and are conducted outside of the veteran’s home; on the sidewalk, in the park, or at the training center for example.
We were finding that these wounded men and women were being held prisoner in their own homes by their service-connected PTSD, TBI and MSA. They had served America honorably, but when they came home nothing the Veterans Administration was doing for them was working. Their entire families were affected, and suicide became a very real option.
“Most of our 238 active program participants found that the most difficult thing to do was to get here for the first time. We have found veterans transfixed in our parking lot for hours due to their PTSD or sitting in their car unable to get in the door. We must let them take the time it takes and when they get through the door, we greet them with a hug. They can see that they are not a number here. In fact, each participant is given a badge with their name to help them know they are a part of something,” Mary explains.
Each veteran must train their own dog and take that dog home to live with them. Dogs that aren’t trained are not as nice to live with. Mary watches closely at each weekly class to ensure the vet has practiced with their service animal during the week. When one vet has done exceptionally well, she watches the rest of the platoon work harder to raise the bar. As the trainer and their dog spend more time together, the healing and the bonding begins.
The Change in Lives is Profound
Throughout the five-month class, a metamorphosis occurs. To supplement the training, an in-house mental health counselor is available. A veteran liaison is on staff who is a graduate of the program. A canine massage therapist helps the dogs stay healthy and veterinary bills can be taken care of by K9 Partners for Patriots. This well-rounded approach helps veterans who apply to the program develop trust with the trainers and the facility.
“Our family is welcome any time the facility is open. We have coffee available during the day and they can just bring their dog and hang out,” explains Gregg. “To help foster the family mentality of the organization, we hold quarterly events for spouses and children to attend.”
For veterans to apply to the program they have to meet only four requirements:
- Honorably Discharged from Military Service
- A letter from their Physician/Counselor or VA stating diagnosis of service related PTSD, TBI, and/or MST and stating that the vet is medically, mentally and physically able to handle the responsibilities of owning a dog.
- Must have DD214 long form
- May not have any felony, domestic violence, sexual offense of any kind and/or any type of animal mistreatment abuse, neglect or cruelty in their records.
Background checks are conducted on each application for the safety of the program and the dog.
There is never any financial charge to a qualifying veteran to participate in the program.
A Proven System
“The whole thing with our program is not just dog training – it was giving them life skills. We’re teaching them how to live again,” Mary explains, but there is no acknowledgement by the VA that therapy dogs are effective in healing PTSD. Scientific proof was needed.
K9 Partners for Patriots partnered with St. Leo University psychotherapist and master level social workers to conduct an evidence based study of the effect of their service dog training program with veterans diagnosed with PTSD, TBI and/or MST using the Trauma Symptom Inventory-2 (TSI-2) assessment, and the results are GREAT!
This amazing organization can always use our help. “The nonprofit is always in need of regular financial support,” explains Mary. “Grants come and go. It costs $5,000 to sponsor a vet and a dog through the program. We could really use some local businesses to step up and provide. We also have need of supplies which can be found on our web site.”
“The most rewarding thing is being able to help someone with my God-given talents. Being able to see the change in these amazing heroes makes it so worthwhile that I love coming to work every day,” Mary says.