March 13th is National K9 Veteran Day, and represents the birthday of the U.S. Army Canine Corps. The first military service dogs graduated from the Dogs for Defense program in 1942, following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Today, "war dogs" are primarily used to help our military sniff out Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s), and to provide emotional support for those stationed in war zones.
American Humane, a national animal welfare organization, recently launched a new program that aims to train shelter dogs as emotional support animals for vets struggling with Post Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injuries. They also help to re-unite retired military service dogs with their former handlers, and award the most outstanding military service dogs the American Humane Lois Pope LIFE K-9 Medal of Courage each July.
One of the 2016 recipients of the award is Fieldy, a black Labrador Retriever that served 4 combat tours detecting I.E.D.’s in Afghanistan, and now continues to do his duty as an emotional support animal for his former handler, Nick Caceres, a Corporal in the U.S. Marines.
"Fieldy was the one who did all the work, I was just the puppet!" says Caceres of the award. "When I take Fieldy on walks around my neighborhood, people just see a dog wagging its tail—no one would know by looking at him that he’s done what he’s done. It’s pretty cool that I have a dog that’s accomplished so much."
Caceres fought hard to adopt Fieldy after the dog was retired from service--the team had been separated for almost 3 years while Fieldy continued to sniff out explosives in Afghanistan. Caceres believes that service dogs like Fieldy are very therapeutic for vets suffering from PTS, and considers himself lucky that he got to adopt the patriotic pooch.
"PTS is an emotion. You’re reacting to something, like a memory. Something has triggered you," Caceres says. "The dogs feel it, and there’s no judgment. Even Fieldy struggles with PTS—every now and then he will have bad dreams, or if there’s a loud bang he will act a certain way, and I know that it’s triggering that in him. We look after each other and calm each other down."
While organizations like American Humane strive to simplify the process of placing K9 Vets and trained service dogs with the veterans who need them, it can still take a long time. Currently, some wait lists demand that vets wait up to 3 years to be paired with a dog.
Marine Captain Jason Haag, a retired vet who served 3 tours in the Middle East, is no stranger to how crippling PTS and TBI’s can be, and how service dogs can help. Though he now serves as the national spokesperson for American Humane, before he adopted his service dog, Axel, he struggled with drug and alcohol abuse--a common way that soldiers returning from combat cope with their trauma.
"I came home and isolated myself. I spent about a year and a half in my basement, and I was at the end of my rope," says Haag of returning to civilian life. "I decided that my last hope was a service dog because I had tried everything else. There’s no doubt about it, Axel saved my life."
American Humane hopes to begin training service dogs to serve as companions for vets struggling with PTS this spring, and the organization is excited to continue their support of K9 Vets. They provide lifetime medical coverage for all retired war dogs that they care for, and go above and beyond to reunite canine vets with their former handlers.
"Service dogs may not work for everyone, but at least fill out the application," Haag urges fellow vets. "It could be the one things that sets you on a path to save your life. I’ve lost way too many friends here at home--more than overseas, actually."
To learn more about K9 Vet’s Day and find out how to celebrate, visit their Facebook page. You can explore the mission and impact of American Humane at their website, www.americanhumane.org or donate funds and sign up to volunteer right here.
The organization is currently accepting nominations for 2017’s American Humane Lois Pope LIFE K-9 Medal of Courage. Do you know a military service dog or K9 Vet that deserves to be recognized? Nominate your furry friend by emailing [email protected].