BROOKSVILLE — Canine companions can be a great source of comfort to individuals and families, but none more so than to our military heroes now living a civilian life.
K9 Partners for Patriots is a nonprofit organization that trains veterans with their dog to live a more wholesome life while combatting service-related post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, or even military sexual trauma.
This year, the nonprofit will host its annual 5K run/walk as a virtual event to accommodate social distancing guidelines that will allow participants to run, walk, or jog at their own pace at home or at the gym.
The 5K run/walk is scheduled for Nov. 14 and online registration costs $30, plus a sign-up fee.
The virtual event aims to “#stompveteransuicide” by raising funds for homeless shelter dogs and veterans with PTSD, TBI, and MST. According to Gregg Laskoski, communications director for K9 Partners for Patriots, there are 20 veteran suicides a day in the United States.
Participants who sign up can receive a race bib, neck gaiter with the nonprofit’s logo on it, and a participation medal.
“It’s grown tremendously,” Laskoski said of the event. “A lot of this is spread from word of mouth and the reputation that the organization has developed.”
The nonprofit provides a free service to veterans and provides them with a homeless shelter dog to train with and take home if they don’t have their own dog that meets training requirements.
Veterans from 36 Florida counties travel to Brooksville to participate in the six-month training program, according to Laskoski, and there are 400 veterans active in the program.
K9 Partners for Patriots currently leases an 11,000-square-foot building that features training rooms to prepare veterans for real-life scenarios, such as shopping for pet food, eating in a café, or going to a doctor’s appointment.
Trained canines can act like a buffer between veterans and the world, as many suffering from PTSD, TBI, or MST are hyper-aware of their surrounding and those who may be near them.
When in line at a check-out, a trained canine can warn their owner if someone is too close to their personal space to help prevent the veteran from feeling stressed out.
Once training is complete and the veteran can take their dog home, the dog will have learned how to assist its new owner as they experience spikes in their adrenaline, and how to prevent an episode from occurring.
A dog could be sleeping in another room, Laskoski said, but it will pick up the fact that its owner is having a nightmare or episode, and will go wake them up.
“Time after time what happens, the veteran and the dog develop a tremendous bond and in this process the severity of those episodes decreases because the dog is so good at what he does that the veteran doesn’t get deeper into a nightmare,” Laskoski said. “The dog over time helps to decrease the frequency of those types of episodes."
Classes meet Monday through Thursday, with groups no larger than 10 veterans and their dogs.
“It’s absolutely amazing because you see a total change in the veteran’s demeanor, you see confidence,” Laskoski said. “When these veterans get started in this program, in a lot of instances they’re apprehensive because they don’t know necessarily what they’re walking into.
“On that first day you can see their stress and anxiety. When they get the dog and they get started, the first sign of success is you suddenly see their faces and there’s some hope in their eyes, and they’re starting to believe this could really work.”
Another integral part of training includes how to prepare veterans to face the general public, who may feel it’s acceptable to ask intrusive comments or say obnoxious things, Laskoski said.
Training teaches veterans how to anticipate public comments, such as questions why they need a service dog, and what to say in response rather than jump into a fight.
K9 Partners for Patriots does not give veterans a cure, but a pathway to success, Laskoski said. It can even help veterans regain a better relationship with their families.
For more information on the nonprofit, visit https://k9partnersforpatriots.com.