“We have to remember that we take a dog from a shelter, and then five to eight months later that dog goes from being isolated to leaving here and sometimes being next to a three-year-old with an ice cream cone,” said Christina Sutherin, K9s For Warriors kennel manager.
“And they have to make the right choices.”
Service Dog Supply & Demand
The need for Service Dogs is great — with more Warrior applicants than ever and veteran suicides tragically totaling roughly 20 per day. The K9s For Warriors procurement team has undergone noticeable growth in order to meet the demand.
“We need procurement to find high-quality dogs so our trainers can turn them into high-quality Service Dogs to help Warriors,” Manager of Programs Greg Wells said. “We can’t do it without them.”
Wells said that they lay the foundation for the work his team does with veterans. “I can’t put gas in my car if they don’t make [the car] first,” Wells said.
Since opening, K9s For Warriors has rescued more than 1,300 dogs overall. Over the past three years alone, the procurement team has pulled more than 340 dogs from nearly 60 shelters, working diligently to find suitable Service Dog candidates for Warriors suffering from post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual trauma.
“When we’re out, we think about the type of Warrior that we can see a dog being with. We always think about the personality that a dog could match with,” said Baylee Bastin, K9 procurement and adoption specialist. “We always have the Warriors in mind.”
While the streams of receiving and seeking out dogs may vary, the standards for entrance into the program do not. In order to begin training to be paired with its future Warrior, a dog must pass a series of medical and temperament tests.
The caliber of K9s For Warriors Service Dogs is extremely high, and the procurement team spends a majority of their time communicating and traveling to shelters scouring for suitable program candidates.
The Florida-based procurement team currently travels between Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, and the Texas team at the Petco Love K9 Center pulls dogs from local San Antonio shelters.
The procurement team also accepts owner-surrendered dogs — including more than a dozen in the past year.
Quality Shelter Candidates
When considering a dog, the procurement team begins by looking for those between one and three years of age — young enough to ensure longevity of service to a veteran after finishing the training period. The general build requirements include a shoulder width between 22 and 27 inches, and the dogs are usually below 80 pounds to meet travel restrictions.
The procurement team is also looking for a friendly and confident dog that can pass the on-site temperament test — a test not about pushing the dog to behave a certain way, but one that gives it choices to make.
“We have to remember that we take a dog from a shelter, and then five to eight months later that dog goes from being isolated to leaving here and sometimes being next to a three-year-old with an ice cream cone,” said Christina Sutherin, K9s For Warriors kennel manager. “And they have to make the right choices.”
The Temperament Test
Before beginning this test, they typically try to give the dogs some time to play and decompress. Sutherin said the shelter environment can sometimes keep a dog from truly being itself.
“I attribute it to living in a haunted house. There’s weird noises, smells, lights, sounds, and there’s not a ton of down time,” said Sutherin.
She also claims that jumping right into the test without any time to get comfortable first would produce inaccurate results.
“It would be like your first day of school walking in and taking a trigonometry test immediately — it’s not very fair.”
Once the dog displays a sense of comfort with the procurement team, they begin the temperament test.
“We start with touch sensitivity. We touch the dog’s ears, feet, tail, face, and their body to make sure they’re okay with that,” said Bastin.
After a dog proves comfortable with touch, the team moves on to sound, testing their reaction to loud noises. If it reacts poorly, it is then monitored for its recovery skills. From there, the team moves on to test resource guarding, putting down a bowl of wet food, allowing the dog to eat freely.
They will then use a training tool called the “Assess-a-Hand,” a human-hand-like device that allows trainers to mimic a real-life situation of food being taken away from a dog to gauge their reaction. If it does not react adversely, it will then be introduced to a ‘strange dog,’ or an unfamiliar, same-sex dog of a relatively similar size.
Upon first meeting, the procurement team is looking for a play-bounce. They want to see the dogs being playful with each other — or at the very least, they need to see some sort of resolution to the meeting of the two animals.
Coming to K9s
At the end of the temperament test, if the dog has successfully made choices conducive to Service Dog life, the procurement team will accept them into the training program.
We always want to do what is in the best interest of the dog and our program.
“We always want to do what is in the best interest of the dog and our program,” said Bastin. “First, is the dog. Obviously, we want to bring in as many as we can, but if it’s not going to benefit the dog, then it’s really not going to benefit us in the end.”
Once a dog arrives on campus, either from owner-surrender or from a shelter, it will go into a 10-day quarantine while undergoing medical exams to ensure the safety of all other in-training dogs. Upon arrival, dogs will be neutered and get X-rays taken of their hips. In order to continue, they must have 40 percent hip coverage — considered “good” by most hip grade classifications.
This ensures the dog has the capability to withstand a life of service, which includes some weight-bearing commands.
If the dog does not pass all of the medical exams, then it will career-change, or exit the training program. The majority of these dogs are adopted through the K9s For Warriors Adoptable Dogs Facebook page.
The procurement team screens potential adopters in order to make the best pairing. Then, they set up a two-week trial period. During that time, there is open communication between the procurement team and adopters to answer any questions or address concerns. If, at the end of the trial, it has been decided that the pairing is not a proper fit, the dog may be returned.
Nearly 200 dogs have been adopted since 2019, finding new, loving homes after being removed from shelters.
“Honestly, I view it as a win,” said Bastin. “Because the ones that career-change — I saw them in a shelter. Some shelters have very few resources, so once they’re here and you see them all being adopted out, it’s rewarding in and of itself.”
The procurement team works tirelessly to end unnecessary shelter animal euthanasia, whether the dog completes the training program or career changes. For many dogs, just like the veterans they will eventually serve, this program is an opportunity for a fresh start.
“We get so many dogs that have been passed over or that have been returned three or four times,” said Sutherin.
“To see them succeed — they’ve gone through such adversity. To see them really blossom here and grow and pick up on things is so cool.”