Only in The Villages: K9 pups for vets

Pete Wagner, who served in the U.S. Army from 1966-68, holds his 7-year-old service dog, Karl, at his home.

Karl stands less than a foot tall, but he’s a big part of Pete Wagner’s life.

Karl, a black Dachshund-Chihuahua mix, is Wagner’s service dog. And Wagner, a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam war, credits Karl greatly for helping him cope with the post-traumatic stress disorder that has afflicted him since he survived enemy attacks during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

“He does make my life much more enjoyable,” said Wagner, of the Village of Duval. “He’s made the quality of my life much better.”

Wagner is not alone in feeling that way. Dogs and PTSD sufferers, especially veterans, make a good combination, research shows.

The National Center for PTSD, a division of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, estimates that nearly 8% of all Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives.

The center notes that for younger veterans – those who served in Operation Desert Storm or in Iraq or Afghanistan – the ratio runs between 11% and 20%.

For troops who served in Vietnam, like Wagner, the rate jumps to 30%.

Yet therapy linked to canines shows dogs make a difference.

Life is More Satisfying

A 2018 study published by Purdue University and K9s for Warriors, a Florida nonprofit that provides service dogs to veterans, found that “life satisfaction” for vets with service dogs ran 22% higher than for those still waiting for a canine partner. Those with the dogs reported higher rates of improved mental health, resilience and an ability to socialize, while also recording reduced PTSD symptoms and depression.

Wagner said his life began to improve once Karl came along, and the pair of them went through training offered by K9 Partners for Patriots in Brooksville.

Wagner’s partnership with Karl began four years ago, he said. He found Karl, now 7, at a nearby rescue shelter. He was originally going to be a pet.

But Wagner had long struggled with traditional therapies, including medications, to treat the nightmares, flashbacks and rage that frequently haunted him from his military service. So, his VA doctor encouraged him to consider a service dog and steered him to K9 Partners.

As it turned out, numerous others have found help through the group as well.

Nearly 500 Partnerships

As of late June, K9 Partners paired dogs with 492 veterans, who live in 39 of Florida’s 67 counties, said Gregg Laskoski, the organization’s communications director.

That’s more than doubled the 200 vets the group helped as of March 2019, around the time Wagner and Karl were in training sessions.

K9 Partners began eight years ago, when renowned dog trainer Mary Peter, whose work had included assisting agencies such as the FBI, FEMA and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in recovering human remains, switched gears.

She focused exclusively on helping military veterans suffering with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and military sexual trauma.

“A lot of vets with PTSD are not capable of being out in public. They also have a lot of depression and anger, and that makes it uncomfortable for their families,” said Laskoski.

A key coping mechanism is self-medication, Laskoski added, with alcohol and drugs, either prescription or illicit.

“The answer doesn’t always come from prescription medications,” he said.

Or maybe something more ominous.

“For too many vets, they choose suicide,” he said.

K9 Partners offers an alternative: a service dog that is largely trained by the veterans themselves over an intensive six-month program.

The Nose Knows

Not just any dog makes a good service dog.

Laskoski said 80 to 85% of the dogs K9 Partners recruits into the program  are rejected.

To serve, the dog must be able to sniff out an elevated adrenaline level, which is the biological component of heightened stress and anxiety.

“They can be the size of a St. Bernard or the size of a Chihuahua; it’s the nose that matters,” said Laskoski.

For the veterans, the key factor is commitment, he added.

“We don’t hand the vets a dog and say, ‘Here’s your dog, good luck,” said Laskoski. “They’re not renting a pet. This is a dog that’s going to be with them until one of them dies.”

Typically, the applicants are brought in as observers for the first couple of weeks to see how the class works. Once past the introductory stage, the vets are expected to show up once a week for formal training for half a year. The canine goes home with them on day one, with the expectation that they will practice commands two hours a day.

A Transformative Experience

“The vets may not realize it, but the whole experience is transformative,” Laskoski said. “Confidence, optimism and hope come back. They now know there’s a positive path forward for them, and they do this with the confidence that the dog has their back.”

The program is free to clients. K9 Partners is funded by supporters’ contributions and a U.S. Department of Defense grant.

Interest in the program has grown in the past two years.

“We want vets and their families to understand that we don’t want anybody to give up, and help is available,” Laskoski said. “There are other ways than the pills and alcohol.”

The value of the program is evident to the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1036,  of which Wagner is a member and past president. Chapter 1036 donates $500 each year to K9 Partners.

“As Pete is helped by this group, we believe other veterans could also be helped,” said current President Rick Rademacher,  of the Village of Lake Deaton.  “We especially like to give to veteran groups that our members can see the positives to know that our funds are used wisely and constructively.”

Doubly Blessed

Wagner said he was “double blessed” because Karl was his pet, and he was able to qualify as his service dog. Wagner may have skipped out on K9 Partners if Karl hadn’t qualified for training.

Now, though, he’s glad he and Karl were able to work through the program together.

“He’s so laid back. He’s a schmoozer. He is a calming factor,” said Wagner. “I’m definitely more comfortable in situations where I can bring him.”

“I would definitely recommend K9 Partners. I think it’s a great program,” he added.

Those interested in applying or learning more about K9 Partners for Patriots can visit k9partnersforpatriots.com.

Staff Writer Bill Thompson can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5228, or william.thompson@thevillagesmedia.com.