The mental health and well-being of veterans returning from conflict have been of concern for many years. The statistic that roughly 20 veterans die by suicide each day is a sobering reminder of the challenges many veterans face when returning home from conflict. While there have been many initiatives to address this issue, one nonprofit organization that stands out is K9s For Warriors, a nonprofit organization that provides service dogs to veterans suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and/or military sexual trauma. The organization pairs rescue dogs with veterans free of charge in an effort to help them transition to civilian life by providing companionship, easing anxiety and depression, and reducing social isolation.

Founded in 2011, K9s For Warriors has since rescued and trained over 620 dogs, serving more than 560 veterans. The organization operates out of two locations in Florida and is available to post-9/11 veterans from all branches of the military. The majority of the dogs used in the program come from kill shelters or owner surrenders, providing a second chance for dogs who might otherwise be euthanized.

The program not only serves veterans but also provides an opportunity for rescue dogs to find a permanent and loving home. By pairing veterans and rescue dogs, K9s For Warriors is making a difference in the lives of both veterans and animals.

One veteran, David Crenshaw, found solace in K9s For Warriors after being diagnosed with highly functioning OTSD, which he had been dealing with for the past 11 years without knowing it. David turned to K9s For Warriors, and he was paired with Doc, a German short-haired pointer mix. Their bond was immediate. According to David, “K9s For Warriors teaches the service member what unconditional love is. This allows them to get out of their heads and view the world for what it really is, not the combat zone that has become their orientation of life.”

For David, Doc became an essential part of his healing journey, providing him with hope and companionship during his darkest times. David had served in the Army and National Guard for 18 years and deployed to Iraq. Upon returning home, he worked as a firefighter and police officer. For him, it was always service before self. But after his mother passed away from cancer, David’s life spiraled out of control. It was during an appointment with the VA that David was diagnosed with highly functioning OTSD.

To ensure efficacy, applicants are carefully screened and evaluated before being admitted into the program. During the three-week training, veterans stay on-site with their service dogs to bond and train together. The program’s success-rate is impressive, with 91% of their graduates returning home with their service dogs.

While K9s For Warriors primarily serves veterans from Florida, the organization has made significant efforts to expand its reach. Through partnerships with other organizations, K9s For Warriors aims to extend its services to veterans nationwide. In addition, the organization has launched a virtual training program to serve veterans who are unable to attend the on-site training.

The impact of service dogs on veterans’ mental health and well-being cannot be overstated. According to a study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, veterans with service dogs reported significantly lower levels of PTSD symptoms, depression, and anxiety compared to veterans on a waitlist for a service dog. The study also found that veterans with service dogs experienced higher levels of social support and quality of life.

Service dogs can help veterans in many ways, including providing companionship, easing anxiety and depression, reducing social isolation, and providing a sense of purpose. The unconditional love and support provided by service dogs can make a significant difference in veterans’ lives, allowing them to better manage their mental health and transition to civilian life.

The impact of K9s For Warriors’ program goes beyond the individual veteran and service dog pairs. Many veterans in the program report an improvement in their relationships with their families and friends, as well as a reduction in symptoms of PTSD and depression. The program also encourages veterans to engage with their communities by participating in events that promote awareness of PTSD and mental health issues.

K9s For Warriors’ program has received national recognition for its innovative approach to treating PTSD in veterans. In 2015, the organization was awarded the Charity Navigator’s highest rating, and in 2016, it was recognized as the national recipient of the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital’s Home Base Program “Service Dog Salute.” The program’s founder, Shari Duval, was also named a CNN Hero in 2016.

K9s For Warriors is just one of many organizations working to support veterans suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues. According to the National Center for PTSD, roughly 11-20% of veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have PTSD in any given year. The number of veterans seeking treatment for PTSD has also increased in recent years, with the VA reporting a 50% increase in the number of veterans seeking mental health treatment from 2004 to 2014.

Despite the increased awareness and treatment options available, many veterans still face significant barriers to receiving adequate care. Long wait times, limited access to mental health professionals, and stigma surrounding mental health issues are just a few of the challenges veterans may encounter.

Organizations like K9s For Warriors help fill the gap by providing innovative and effective treatment options that not only improve the lives of veterans but also create a positive impact on their families and communities. By providing a second chance for rescue dogs and pairing them with veterans in need, K9s For Warriors is addressing both animal welfare and mental health issues in a unique and impactful way.

For veterans like David Crenshaw, K9s For Warriors has been a lifeline. The program has not only provided him with a service dog that has helped him manage his symptoms of PTSD but has also given him a sense of purpose and community. “I would encourage anyone who’s considering the program to do it,” he says. “You won’t regret it.”

The program’s success is a testament to the power of the human-animal bond and the potential for innovation in the treatment of mental health issues in veterans. As more organizations like K9s For Warriors continue to emerge, we can work towards a future where every veteran has access to the care and support they need to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.