Three Florida Army veterans, once debilitated by the invisible wounds of war, now spend their days teaching other veterans how to heal through the use of service dogs.
Greg Wells, James Rutland and Bill Stump are warrior trainers at K9s For Warriors, a Ponte Vedra-based nonprofit that rescues shelter dogs and trains them to serve post-9/11 veterans afflicted by military trauma. All three trainers have their own service dogs and graduated from K9s For Warriors.
“We know how it feels to hear phrases like ‘just get over it, PTSD is not a real thing,’” Stump said. “It really helps to have one of your veteran brothers or sisters tell you it will be ok.”
Wells, Rutland and Stump train PTSD veterans on how to utilize service dogs in real-life scenarios. Each trainer is assigned a group of warriors for three weeks and takes their groups out in public to face fears and accomplish goals. Veterans are taught to depend on their service dogs for symptom mitigation.
“Most of the men and women who come here to get a service dog have tried so many other things to recover from PTSD,” Wells said. “We understand because we’ve been in their shoes.”
K9s For Warriors is based on the philosophy that veterans should be involved in their own recovery, and purposely removes veterans from their comfort zones. The three warrior trainers lead lectures, demonstrations and training sessions to help prepare their students for public-access training, a test that must be passed to become a certified service dog handler.
Wells, Rutland and Stump teach how to give service dogs specific commands that will encourage peer interaction, reduce hyper-vigilance and increase confidence for warriors. An example of a command taught in the program is “cover.” When the dog hears this command word, it will turn around, facing the opposite direction of the warrior, to watch his/her handler’s back. This command gives veterans relief from a constant state of hyper-vigilance or the fear that someone could attack at any time — a feeling hard for most to shake after leaving the battlefield.
“These service dogs save lives … My dog saved mine,” Rutland said. “Once the veteran establishes a bond with their dog, something just clicks, and recovery can happen.”
Twenty-nine percent of post-9/11 veterans suffer from PTSD. Shari Duval founded K9s For Warriors in 2011 to combat the PTSD crisis and to aid veterans in their recovery from trauma because of post-9/11 military service. Duval learned first-hand about the struggles U.S. military veterans face after her son returned home with PTSD following two tours in Iraq as a contractor. As of October 2017, the total number of warriors that have graduated from the program is 367.
K9s For Warriors also provides a new beginning for the service dogs that are trained and paired. Ninety percent of the dogs within the program are rescues from animal shelters or are owner-surrendered directly to K9s For Warriors. Many of these dogs were scheduled for euthanasia before being acquired by the K9s program.