Service Dogs for Those Who've Served

January 02, 2018

The T-shirts read “Never Walk Alone,” and that seems to be the promise that the K9 Partners for Patriots staff has made to the veterans they work with.

Canine training activity Founded by CEO Mary Peter in 2014, K9 Partners for Patriots is a service dog training program based in Brooksville, FL, that is committed to helping military veterans overcome anxiety and depression and ultimately regain their trust of the outside world.

K9 Partners for Patriots assists veterans from every era (not only post 9/11), and the group offers support for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and military sexual trauma (MST).

For several years, Peter owned a dog-training business, and she found that more and more veterans were coming to her and asking for help in training their dogs. They had heard that having dogs could assist them but weren’t sure where to start. As she worked with the veterans, she realized how great the need was, closed her business, and started the nonprofit K9 Partners for Patriots.

One of her earliest supporters was Diane Scotland-Coogan, PhD, assistant professor of social work at Saint Leo. Dr. Scotland-Coogan had been working with Give an Hour and interacted with a military veteran with PTSD. She happened to be speaking about anxiety at a Rotary Club meeting one day and was encouraged to meet Mary Peter. The two women realized they had similar goals, and the idea for K9 Partners for Patriots was born. Today military veterans are benefiting from their coordinated efforts.

Over the years, 406 veterans have applied for the program, and it currently serves 270 veterans who are active in K9 Partners for Patriots. These men and women “are always welcome back, and they are always part of the family,” Peter said.


How the Program Works

Canine and Handler ID Card Veterans who are interested in acquiring service dogs can apply to K9 Partners for Patriots. There is no charge to the veterans for the 19-week training program, which includes a dog, service vest, service dog ID, certification record, and all necessary equipment.

The staff is comprised of a number of volunteers and a few full-time employees, many of whom are veterans who have participated in the program.

The veterans attend classes once a week and are responsible for training their own dogs. “This routine gives them a sense of purpose and camaraderie,” Peter explained. “So many vets have lost their purpose. They need to rebuild their confidence, their self-worth.”

“When military men and women are deployed, they develop a hypervigilance and they learn to not trust their surroundings based on their previous understanding of the world,” said Dr. Scotland-Coogan. “Their minds adapt to keeping themselves safe and alive. Once they return from deployment, their minds need to readapt to being home. When they reenter civilian life, we find they have lost the ability to trust others, the world around them, and their own judgment. They feel it is easier not to leave their homes, where they can somewhat control their environment. They see their dogs as having their back, which helps them learn to trust again. Once they can trust a dog, they can start to trust people again. Through the training process, when they are able to control certain situations, they learn to trust themselves.”

canine and handler activity at Lowes During the program, the veterans work with their dogs and develop strategies for managing interactions with others in public. They practice scenarios such as being in restaurants, going shopping, and visiting a doctor. “This is my medical alert dog,” they practice saying. And when questioned about their conditions, “Not all disabilities are visible.” The dogs provide comfort and security to the veterans. They also can provide a necessary barrier between the veterans and the public. Peter emphasizes that dogs can also detect what humans cannot see, such as low sugar levels and impending seizures or panic attacks, and it is important to educate the public about Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) laws.


A Partnership with Saint Leo
In addition to being an early supporter of the nonprofit, Dr. Scotland-Coogan is working on research about the K9 Partners for Patriots methods. She explains that talk therapy can be problematic for veterans because they struggle with putting their traumatic experiences into words. However, they don’t have to tell dogs their stories. Dogs support them unconditionally without knowing all they have been through.

For instance, dogs can wake veterans from their nightmares before they get too bad. Their instincts allow them to intervene faster than a spouse can.

Dr. Scotland-Coogan and her colleagues are working on a pilot study about veterans’ symptoms and how effective their relationships with dogs can be. They are comparing the canine approach to a control group and will then compare it to other forms of treatment. It is possible that after forming a bond with canines, veterans may be able to benefit from talk therapy and other traditional forms of treatment.

“We are losing more vets to suicide than in battle,” she stated. That fact makes the work of K9 Partners for Patriots all the more urgent.

In addition, Dr. Scotland-Coogan and her Saint Leo colleagues are offering Animal Assisted Therapy, a course that focuses on all aspects of animal assistance. It is an interdisciplinary class that involves social work, criminal justice, and education. She has also helped to create A Veteran HEAT (Honoring Empowering Assisting Training) Factory, a nonprofit that aims to assist veterans with vocational and career success. Once they have left the military, she explained, veterans need assistance with the next step. Many of the veterans are still quite young and desire a purpose for their life. What are they capable of doing, what purpose can they serve, and what do they want to do? Options could be volunteering, going back to school, job training, mentoring, all of which HEAT will assist them in achieving on an individual basis. HEAT will also provide social interaction opportunities through which veterans can feel safe and develop the ability to form supportive relationships. 

Photo of Mary and Denny Denny Brown ’11, ’13 (pictured with Mary Peter) earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from Saint Leo and is now in private practice as a therapist. He lends his services to K9 Partners for Patriots by helping with training sessions and leading support groups for veterans, as well as separate groups for their spouses.

Brown explained that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is overwhelmed. The needs of the veterans are profound, but traditional services are not adequate. Veterans need help maneuvering all the regulations of that government agency.


Benefits for the Service Dogs
In addition to serving the needs of military veterans, K9 Partners for Patriots has rescued more than 75 dogs from shelters. The group works with a variety of breeds of rescue dogs, giving these animals a second chance at loving homes and fulfilling lives.

Some 20 veterans commit suicide every day, and 3 million dogs are euthanized very year. With every class and every support group, the K9 Partners for Patriots staff is working to better both of those troubling statistics.


Future Goals and Challenges
Through the research being conducted, K9 Partners for Patriots hopes to prove just how effective canine companionship can be for veterans. Dr. Scotland-Coogan noted that the VA requires 10 years of evidence-based research before using new therapies, so providing accurate data is critical.

K9 Partners for Patriots is in the process of moving into a larger facility in Brooksville, which will provide the veterans with more space for scenario training, group therapy, and other services. The nonprofit has been successful with help from grants and other funding from the Department of Defense and generous donors. The group has also benefited from the support of U.S. Representative Gus Bilirakis. Volunteers are always welcome, as are those who are willing to foster dogs awaiting training.

Juggling the finances and managing the needs of the veterans can be challenging, but Peter explained, “This is a ministry. I have faith it will all work out.”