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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida — Shari Duval knows that dogs can heal.
Duval was inspired to do something after her son, Brett Simon, returned from two tours in Iraq. Simon was a civilian K9 police officer before joining a special team whose main mission was to work with the Army.
"I was chosen to work with explosive tracking dogs in Iraq. Once I arrived in Iraq in Baghdad, I was shipped out to Mosul, where I worked with the striker brigade working on the first tracking explosive dogs that were attempted in Iraq," said Simon.
Duval said she wasn't prepared when her son came home diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
"He was somebody different, he was not my son that went over there. He was completely changed, and that was a shock that I've never experienced before, so it was more of panic. What do I do? What can I do? How do I fix it?"
Duval started researching methods on how to treat persons with PTSD and found that using service dogs was a promising solution. But at the time, there weren't many organizations providing service dogs for veterans.
In 2010, she founded K9s for Warriors to help her son and other military veterans with PTSD. To date, hundreds of veterans have received dogs and a new lease on life.
Finding the right dog
Duval's son is now the organization's director of K9 operations and selects the dogs and directs their training.
K9s for Warriors trains mostly rescue dogs to become certified service canines for military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The training can take up to a year before the dogs are ready to help them cope with issues like controlling anxiety attacks or fear of public places.
"We evaluate the dog for being sound around people, other dogs, noises, cars and riding in the bus," said Simon. "We take them to the store and walk them around. If they keep progressing through that, then they spend the next three to four months getting their basic formal obedience done."
The staff will read through applications from veterans to pair them with the right dog. For three weeks, veterans live at the organization's camp in Florida and go through several training courses with their dogs.
The training continues
After successfully completing the program, the veterans will have support when they return home, including access to an online community via a private Facebook page group. They can also come back for refresher courses.
Kevin Crowell, a graduate of the program, has been back for more classes. He is now mentoring to other veterans who go through the program.
"It's still a transition period when you bring the dog home. My wife had to get used to me spending a lot of time with her as well as Bella coming up and comforting me," said Kevin Crowell. "It was about six months to a year when things really started to gel, and she just became another part of the family."
Before the K9s for Warriors program, Crowell had problems going out in public. He had been diagnosed with PTSD and would have nightmares. His dog Bella now even wakes him up during bad dreams.
Crowell's life has changed for the better, and he gives much of the credit to Shari Duval and K9s for Warriors.
"Shari doesn't even realize the impact she has on people's lives. I don't think she really gets that she's saving lives," Crowell said. "It's amazing that because of one person's dream to help her son, many other people have benefited. And I'm grateful."
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