K9s for Camo helps save lives on many levels
Fear is something former combat engineer John Lopez and his fellow soldiers dealt with daily as part of the 37th Engineer Battalion. While serving in Afghanistan, John’s job was to help ensure his unit avoided roadside bombs along their routes.
“I remember our first sergeant talking to us about ‘getting rid of our fears’ when we return home,” recalls the veteran. “Mine was a very real fear of dogs.”
After being bitten by a dog as a child, John had carried a fear of the animal all through his life. It wasn’t until the first sergeant was killed by mortar fire that his words came into perspective for John. As he headed home from duty in 2007, John knew he needed to tackle his fear head-on.
Applying techniques learned while on missions, John began studying the work of experts in canine psychology and used the knowledge for behavioral training with dogs. The Rogersville man began training canines for clients and soon animal shelters reached out to John to assist with challenged rescues.
The entrepreneur opened a boarding and training facility, Howliday Inn Pet Resort, in Rogersville. Groups including Labs for Liberty and Missouri Patriot Paws reached out for his training assistance, and the Missouri Department of Corrections asked John to help them select dogs for and train inmates in the Puppies On Parole program.
Today, John is the founder of K9s for Camo, a nonprofit group with a three-fold mission: help veterans with PTSD and other issues, help rescue healthy shelter dogs who need homes and help inmates rehabilitate their lives.
Adds John, “Another goal is to provide these service dogs at no cost to veterans,” noting those costs can easily go up to $9,000. Donations and grants are a majority of what makes the dogs available for veterans.
“Right now, our country loses 22 veterans each day to suicide,” John continues. “Knowing K9s for Camo is helping enrich so many lives is an amazing feeling.”
A dog’s journey from shelter to service has many steps. First, shelter dogs are assessed for temperament and potential. Then the furry candidates are taken to K9s for Camo headquarters at the Howliday Inn Pet Resort where trainers evaluate the dogs’ ability to learn specific tasks to assist a veteran. A veterinarian gives the dog a thorough exam and confirms he or she is healthy and ready to train.
On the paperwork end of things, it’s around this point a veteran who has applied for a dog is matched to a potential furry friend. The trainers begin more rigorous obedience and home manner training, then dogs are sent to boot camp at the Ozarks Correctional Center where inmates live 24/7 with an assigned dog. Inmates continue specific task training and help canine recruits obtain their first AKC certification, a process which averages 8 to 12 weeks.
“That’s when the dogs are returned to us for their public access training and fine tuning,” says Michael Miller, K9s for Camo’s lead trainer. He knows the program works because he’s a success story himself.
“I did some dumb things as a kid and got into drugs pretty bad,” Michael says. “When I heard about the dog program, I knew I wanted to become part of it.”
Michael, 37, began work with a lab-pit bull mix named Minnie. “There were some hard days, but Minnie would stand by my side with her tail hitting my leg like she was reminding me of my goals. She helped me stay focused. It was like she was training me, too.”
The trainer chokes up a bit and continues. “Working with her was probably the first time that I ever cared about anything other than myself in a long time.”
Camo, Michael’s young German shepherd, keeps his eyes on his trainer constantly. For this session, Michael has placed several scent tins around the area. Camo’s job is to find the one with the required scent.
Camo zips around, locates the tins, bumps the correct container with his nose and looks up at Michael for a training treat.
“If a veteran has a special need, like for diabetic alert, we train the dog to constantly be aware of their owner’s breath because that’s when they know to check their blood sugar,” adds the trainer. “If stability is an issue, veterans would be matched with a larger dog. We train for seizure alert, narcolepsy, to assist with Parkinson’s and more.”
Once a dog has completed training, they receive their AKC Community Canine Certification and are ready to report for duty with a veteran, where they will now serve one who served us. But training doesn’t stop there, as K9s for Camo continues to train both the dog and veterans when needed.
John says not every dog is cut out for work like this.
“We’re really looking for an old soul that’s just calm, attentive, not fearful. That soul can be found in a young or older dog. We can usually tell if a dog is going to work for our purposes during our first assessment,” says the founder.
From canines to inmates and veterans, K9s for Camo is helping make big changes in the lives of many.
“My thought is that besides God, I think a dog is the next best thing,” says John. “I’ve seen dogs saved within days of being euthanized, prisoner’s lives turn around, and veterans go from suicidal to having the will to live. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
For more information about K9s for Camo call 417-895-8733; email email@example.com or check out their website, www.k9sforcamo.org. To make a donation or become a sponsor, go to www.k9sforcamo.org.
When you meet a service dog:
— Don’t interact with the dog in any way; treat the dog as you would a wheelchair.
— Do respect the privacy of the owner.
— Do not take photos or stare.
— Do not question the need for a service dog.
— Do know that a dog may be working even if they do not appear to be.
— Do keep your dog at a distance.
— Do not approach without asking first.