“Each puppy has left paw prints on my heart.”
Deidre Strag, K9s For Warriors Puppy Raiser
A Rising Need
While K9s For Warriors procures the majority of its Service Dog candidates from surrounding animal shelters, to meet the growing demand of veterans in need of hypoallergenic dogs, the organization now accepts donations of ethically-sourced bred and donated puppies.
Since 2018, K9s For Warriors has paired over 100 puppy-raised Service Dogs with veterans.
The K9s For Warriors puppy program is comprised of nearly 150 volunteers who train and care for puppies before the animals complete on-campus Service Dog training in order to be paired with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual trauma.
Cindy Cope, K9s For Warriors puppy program manager, oversees the volunteers, and with experience as a K9 trainer, she understands what animals need in order to be successful as Service Dogs.
“Our primary goal is to save a veteran. When it comes to shelters, we can’t always find dogs that will fit veterans’ needs, so we must find another source,” Cope said.
This year alone, K9s For Warriors has paired more hypoallergenic dogs than in the past three years combined. Currently, there are roughly 25 veterans on the waitlist in-need of hypoallergenic dogs, and the likelihood of finding those dogs in shelters is extremely low.
Across the nation, there are very few organizations providing hypoallergenic Service Dogs to veterans.
“Our main mission is to save two lives — we use the puppy program dogs to fill in gaps where they’re needed,” said Cope.
fostered Service Dogs
To date, nearly 100 puppy-raised Service Dogs have been paired with United States military veterans.
Currently, roughly 150 volunteers make up the foster program.
As of October 2021, there are approximately 25 veterans on the waitlist for a hypoallergenic Service Dog.
Puppies: A Work of Heart
Growing up on a horse farm in California, animal training came early in life for Cope. She trained and showed horses across the United States, going on to become a grand national champion. After relocating to Germany, she got her first taste of puppy raising with an organization that trained Service Dogs for children with disabilities in wheelchairs.
She says that has been a useful perspective while working with her K9s For Warriors foster volunteers today: “I know exactly what our volunteers are going through.”
For many volunteers, including puppy raiser Deidre Strag, puppy raising is a work of heart. After raising Service Dogs for the past three years, she’s seen lives changed forever.
“Each puppy has left paw prints on my heart,” said Strag.
A Forever Bond
Deidre recently raised a hypoallergenic poodle mix, Snickers, for a 2021 veteran graduate, and their bond was extremely strong. He helped her manage chronic back pain and depression.
She said that, while it was difficult to part with Snickers, she was extremely proud to watch him graduate with his veteran.
“It’s special knowing you’re giving someone such an amazing gift,” Strag said. “You aren’t giving the dog up — you’re giving him forward.”
Snickers as a puppy
Snickers before being paired with his veteran
A Learning Curve
Kathy Brooks started raising puppies for veterans in 2015 after hearing about the K9s For Warriors from a friend. With military ties strong in her family and a true passion for dogs, committing to a puppy was a no brainer for Brooks.
To date, Kathy has raised nine dogs for K9s For Warriors, and as a preschool teacher, she brought the dogs into her classroom, simultaneously exposing the dogs to a new environment while also enriching her students’ learning space.
The dogs accompanied her to school each day and stayed by her side while she taught preschool.
Everybody knew about Valor in Ms. Kathy’s class. I loved the kids who were unsure about dogs in the beginning, but by the end of the year, they were the ones who had their hands on the dog’s back for the story during circle time.
“Everybody knew about Valor in Ms. Kathy’s class,” Brooks said. “I loved the kids who were unsure about dogs in the beginning, but by the end of the year, they were the ones who had their hands on the dog’s back for the story during circle time.”
Each year, she would read “Raising a Hero,” a children’s story of Service Dogs, to her students. For every dog Brooks fostered, she would stamp the dog’s footprint in the front cover, continuing the tradition on to present-day.
Raising a Puppy
In order to become a foster, applicants go through intensive training, first completing virtual “human-only” classes in which they study the history of K9s For Warriors, the training process, and what is expected of raisers and staff.
Once the volunteers complete this training, K9s For Warriors staff members conduct a home visit in order to evaluate the environment the puppy will be living in, looking for objects potentially harmful to the dog, like poisonous plants.
“You have to put absolutely everything up,” said Brooks. “It’s like baby-proofing the house. My current puppy has a thing for shoes, socks, and remote controls.”
After their home passes the evaluation, a foster is ready to be paired with a puppy. K9s For Warriors procures puppies as early as eight weeks of age, and they remain with their fosters until roughly 16 months old.
“We work on redirecting quite a bit. We don’t use the word ‘no’ — no verbal or physical corrections either,” said Cope.
For foster volunteers, it’s an opportunity to highlight the positive strides their dogs are making.
“I always want to make sure my dog feels successful and proud of what they’ve done. If we go out somewhere, I want us to leave on a high note,” said Brooks.
At K9s For Warriors, handlers remain tethered to their dogs while the Service Dogs are in-vest.
“Their leash has to be attached to them. It gives the raiser the opportunity to reward good behavior. If the dog is on the other side of the room, you can’t reward immediately,” Cope said.
The first six weeks of the program, our volunteers are focused on crate training, potty training, and house manners. Due to vaccination restrictions and timelines, puppies do not venture out into public spaces in order to prevent exposure to viruses with weakened immune systems.
After the puppies receive all their vaccinations, they are awarded their Service Dog working vests and raisers slowly integrate trips into public spaces.
“I tell them to go to a bookstore — it’s quiet — maybe the library. It’s a very slow process. As they mature, more exciting things can happen,” said Cope.
Once the puppy’s tolerance and confidence increase, the volunteers start increasing the difficulty level bit by bit.
“It’s just like a child. You can’t expect a two-year-old to sit through an hour-long meal. It’s not setting them up for success.
“It’s just like a child,” said Kathy. “You can’t expect a two-year-old to sit through an hour-long meal. It’s not setting them up for success. They’ll probably fuss, and everyone will be miserable. You always have that in your mind.”
They may start attempting the grocery store with short, controlled trip for the puppy. Cope tells them to take one lap and come right back out. If that is successful, then they try it again.
For Brooks, it was a lifestyle adjustment.
“Your little 20-minute trip for groceries is now easily an hour long between getting them out of the car, allowing time for the bathroom, getting their vest on, and going through the store — and that’s without stopping to speak with people about your dog,” Brooks said. “That’s my favorite part.”
For foster volunteers, the goal is to eventually take the dog almost everywhere with them, socializing and preparing the future Service Dog for life with a veteran.
“The dogs go absolutely everywhere with me — when I get my haircut, to the dentist, to festivals in Jacksonville Beach.”
“The dogs go absolutely everywhere with me — when I get my haircut, to the dentist, to festivals in Jacksonville Beach,” said Brooks.
Many volunteers take the in-training dogs on family vacations, practicing airplane etiquette and exposure. Some dogs have even visited Disney World.
Along with socialization in and out of the home, foster volunteers bring their dogs to on-campus training sessions in order to meet with fellow volunteers and learn from Cope and her team.
These group classes not only give volunteers an opportunity to ask questions and address any issues they may be having with their puppies, but it also helps the dogs learn to work around other dogs.
Puppy raisers acclimating their puppies to public spaces, including shops and the airport
With the tragic rise in veteran suicides, K9s For Warriors is dedicated to meeting the demand for high-quality, trained Service Dogs, relying heavily on dedicated volunteers to expedite the training process.
Cope said she’s seen a decline in foster volunteer engagement with the covid pandemic, but she remains optimistic.
“There’s an option for everyone,” Cope said. “We’re always looking for more raisers — you can even take your puppy to work.”
All supplies are provided to volunteers, including a crate, leash, food and medical care.
A volunteer may choose how long they would like to foster a puppy, ranging from one weekend to 16 months. A foster may keep a puppy for only a brief time, while a puppy raiser usually keeps a dog until it is ready to enter the K9s For Warriors kennels.
Volunteers may also medically foster dogs who have particular needs that may take extra time and care.
If you are 18 years of age or older and interested in fostering a future K9s For Warriors Service Dog for a United States military veteran, visit https://k9sforwarriors.org/dog-volunteer-form/