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K9s on the Front Line pairs veterans with dogs who have their backs

By EDWARD D. MURPHY | Portland (Maine) Press Herald | Published: November 10, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — Jason Howe was at sea emotionally in 2016.

Back in Maine after splitting up with his wife, the former Navy military policeman said he grappled with post-traumatic stress disorder and other health issues.

“I had gone through some struggles, I was self-medicating and hibernating,” said Howe, a Gardiner native. “I didn’t want to live and didn’t want to do anything.”

Then he ran into a friend who had been in the Air Force and had a service dog. The friend explained that he got the dog and extensive training through K9s on the Front Line, a nonprofit formed in Maine four years ago to pair veterans who have PTSD or traumatic brain injuries with service dogs who can render physical and emotional aid.

That appealed to Howe, who at times had worked with dogs while in the military.

Howe had joined the Navy in 2002 and during his five years in the service, went to some difficult places, including the detention camp for terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“That was pretty rough,” he said, given the hostility between the detainees and the guards.

After his service, Howe said, he and his wife moved to Missouri, where his wife had grown up. But after they had two boys, the couple split up and Howe moved back to Maine.

Then he learned about K9s on the Front Line. The organization lined him up with Sobe, a boxer mix rescued from a shelter in Georgia two days before she was to be euthanized.

The two spent a few weeks together before the organization set them up in training classes, offered once per week for 26 weeks.

The class is taught by police officers who work with police dogs, said Linda Murray, one of the founders of K9s on the Front Lines and now the nonprofit’s vice president. Murray said the group has found that the veterans and police officers bond well because they encounter similar stresses in their work.

“A combat veteran and a police officer with years on the street, they have a lot in common,” Murray said.

Howe said he and Sobe went through about 340 hours of training, about three times the normal amount, because of extensive work they did outside of the weekly classes. They also logged 515 miles of walking, Howe said, and having Sobe was instrumental in getting him up and motivated to head out.

“I loved being outside and I loved being outside with her,” Howe said. He refers to Sobe as his “battle buddy.”

After they completed the course, Howe and Sobe headed back to Missouri to be closer to Howe’s sons, now 12 and 14.

Howe, who has a 100% disability rating because of his PTSD, nerve damage and other medical issues, said he went to dog trainer’s school in Missouri and then worked with Murray and Dr. Hagen Blaszyk, co-founders of K9s on the Front Line, to set up a chapter in Jefferson City, Mo.

Murray said the parent organization in Maine got started when she and Blaszyk, a pathologist, were talking one time after taking their dogs to an obedience class. She said they floated the idea of using dogs from shelters instead of dogs raised to be service dogs and it didn’t take much time to figure out they wanted to help veterans.

“Who can’t get behind the vets?” said Murray, a mortgage loan officer who specializes in VA loans. “Veterans are people who ask for the least and have done the most.”

She also had experience with dogs as therapy. Her son was in the hospital for months while waiting for a heart transplant when he was younger. The visits from therapy dogs lifted his spirits, Murray said.

“The dog is a tool in the toolbox” for helping vets as well as kids in the hospital, Murray said. “The dogs can absorb psychological energy.”

She and Blaszyk jumped in, learning how to set up a nonprofit and focusing on raising money. It costs about $3,500 to adopt a dog and train it, and all of the cost is covered by the organization.

Since the group was founded, she said, they have raised $500,000.

“It just kind of took off,” she said.

As for the training, “a lot of it is stuff that you can’t see,” Murray said,

The dog and the vet create a partnership and in many ways, the dog helps replace the fellow soldiers who were in a veteran’s unit — watching the veteran’s back in seemingly innocuous situations, like waiting in line. The vet and the dog also sleep in the same bed or room, Murray said, and the dogs are are trained to wake up and help comfort the vet if he or she has a nightmare.

“It really is based on needs,” she said.

The dogs gain a mission and a focus. But that doesn’t preclude them from becoming part of a family, said Joey Hall, who was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq while he was in the Army from 1998 to 2005.

Originally from Texas, Hall said he knocked around the country, doing odd jobs, and eventually headed to Maine, where the VA hospital offered some treatment for his “burn pit exposure” — chemicals and harmful substances he was exposed to when garbage and other waste were burned by military units in the field. He also suffers from PTSD and suffered arm and leg injuries from a bomb blast in Iraq.

Hall said his wife thought a service dog would be helpful and he looked into various programs once they settled in Hallowell. K9s on the Front Line got back to him quickly and identified him as someone who would benefit from the program, he said.

He was paired with Doug, a great Pyrenees — “a humongous, white furball,” as Hall describes him.

Doug was rambunctious and headstrong and required a lot of training, Hall said, but the two caught on. Doug can comfort Hall when he suffers PTSD symptoms and also can provide physical help. Hall’s condition gives him “stability problems,” he said, and he and Doug work together to get him up if he falls.

Hall said he remains close with four other veterans who went through training with him and Doug. They talk almost daily.

Doug also plays with his children and his wife, Hall said, so he’s become part of the family and more than a service dog.

“If something’s going on, the dog knows about it and tries to help,” he said. “That’s my buddy.”

©2019 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)
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