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‘A life of dignity’ for rescue dogs and veterans

K9s for Warriors trains service dogs for veterans

Former Highland Lakes Canine Rescue dog Indy, now called Yankee, graduated from K9s for Warriors training on June 17 and is now assigned to Caitlyn, a U.S. military veteran, as her service dog. Courtesy photo

Highland Lakes Canine Rescue is known for giving dogs a second chance. Recently, one of its dogs joined a select cadre of canines helping give U.S. military veterans second chances of their own.

Border collie mix Indy graduated from the K9s for Warriors‘ 10-month program in Florida on June 17. The dog, now known as Yankee, was assigned to a veteran who is dealing with a military-related trauma such as post-traumatic stress disorder, a brain injury, or sexual assault. 

The mission of K9s for Warriors is to train shelter dogs to support veterans so they can “live a life of dignity and independence.”

“They have the same mission we do: Help dogs, help people,” said Susan Willis about K9s for Warriors. Willis is the executive director of Highland Lakes Canine Rescue.

The Florida-based service dog organization reached out to the Highland Lakes rescue in 2020 regarding possible dogs for its program. Willis explained that K9s for Warriors has specific and strict standards for dogs, including size, temperament, and personality. 

Dogs at Highland Lakes Canine Rescue often come from other shelters, animal control officers, or owner surrenders. The rescue’s technicians receive information from these sources and make observations of their own to find perfect forever homes.

K9s for Warriors does its own evaluations of potential service dog candidates before training begins.

Willis said that training is quite comprehensive.

“For the first part of it, professional trainers are working with the dogs,” she explained. 

Trainers prepare the dog for all possible scenarios it might come across when paired with a veteran. The dog must respond to cues, often invisible to humans, that alert it to a veteran’s state of mind, including anxiety, stress, and/or fear. 

Even an untrained dog can pick up on these subtle cues, but when trained, Willis said, it can respond in a way that helps its owner relax, calm down, and better deal with the situation.

If a dog can’t complete the program, K9s for Warriors will find it a forever home rather than returning it to a shelter. 

Along with Indy (now Yankee), another Highland Lakes Canine Rescue dog, Ramona, was chosen for the program but did not finish it. K9s for Warriors found her a home in Jacksonville, Florida.

After the first part of training is over, the organization brings in veterans to match them with a dog. The human-canine pair then complete the program together.’

Highland Lakes Canine Rescue staff and volunteers were able to watch Yankee’s training streamed live online.

“It was very moving,” Willis said. “He’s going to do great things.”

Roy will be trained by K9s for Warriors
K9s for Warriors, a nonprofit that trains dogs and pairs them with veterans, will train Roy, a Plott hound-mountain cur mix. Roy is from Highland Lakes Canine Rescue, which recently had one of its former dogs successfully complete the 10-month program and be assigned a veteran. Courtesy photo

K9s for Warriors recently contacted the Highland Lakes rescue about another possible program candidate and chose Roy, a Plott hound-mountain cur mix. He’s now off to start his 10 months of training.

Willis said Highland Lakes Canine Rescue loves working with other nonprofits that share its mission and vision in how dogs can help improve the lives of people, and vice versa. Along with K9s for Warriors, the rescue has placed dogs with Wounded Warriors and other service animal programs.

“It’s truly rewarding to see how these dogs can make a difference in so many people’s lives,” she said. 

It often just takes someone giving them a second chance.

For more information on how a dog can make a difference in your life, visit the HLCR website. The organization also could use volunteers and donations.