By Staff Sgt. Nicole Dykstra, 99th Regional Support CommandMarch 7, 2011
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J., Feb. 26, 2011 -- "Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war" -
William Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar," Act III, Scene I
The transition and reintegration phase following a deployment can be difficult for many servicemembers. Each individual deals with the experience in a different way, so access to a wide variety of organizations and resources to ease the process is important.
K9 Soldiers was one of many organizations on hand to provide information and assistance to returning Soldiers during the 99th Regional Support Command's Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Event in Atlantic City, N.J., Feb. 26.
K9 Soldiers is a 501(c)(3) charity organized to support, benefit and improve the lives of military working dogs and their handlers. The organization routinely sends care packages filled with supplies such as leashes, harnesses, training equipment and canine shampoo to deployed handlers and their dogs.
However, military working dog handlers make up only a tiny fraction of the armed forces. Realizing that many other servicemembers could benefit from working with a dog, J.T. Gabriel, founder of K9 Soldiers, decided to try to expand the unique bond between servicemember and canine to those who performed other missions while deployed.
"Anyone who knows dogs, has dogs or loves dogs intuitively knows the therapeutic value of having one around," said Gabriel. "So we thought, 'What if we introduced that bond to Soldiers who didn't go downrange with a dog but needed a battle buddy when they came home''"
K9 Soldiers has partnered with Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania to provide canine training courses to warriors in transition and wounded warriors in a unique program that combines online academic work and field training. While the training is not yet available, K9 Soldiers hope to have the program off the ground for the fall 2011 semester, said Gabriel.
Top civilian canine instructors, as well as former military working dog trainers, have been recruited to provide instruction. Some of the topics the program will cover include canine anatomy and nutrition, emergency care, obedience and search and rescue training. After completing the online courses, servicemembers will have an opportunity to put their skills into action by participating in field exercises with their dogs.
"We will teach the Soldiers how to train their dog, whether it be for general obedience, search and rescue, law enforcement or for personal protection," said Gabriel. "We understand that some Soldiers come back with issues they aren't comfortable talking about, and having a dog around can help reduce their stress and help them reintegrate into society."
The dogs involved in the program will remain with the servicemember, provided they are willing and able to keep the dog, said Gabriel. She selects dogs with a high play-drive and good hips, often from kill shelters that may have difficulty finding an adoptive family for an energetic dog. Breeds ideal for the training include Belgian Shepherds (Malinois), German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers.
At this time, the Academic Canine Training and Practicum will only be available to former or current servicemembers.
For more information, visit www.k9soldiers.org.