Some dogs are trained to rescue people from drowning, but it isn’t always from water. That’s what a dog named Donna did for Army veteran Jodie Revils.

Severe post-traumatic stress disorder made it difficult for Revils to stay present. When his wife or two children tried to joke with him, his mind would be thousands of miles away in Iraq, where the 37-year-old had served for a tour in 2003 and 2004. He was gripped by panic attacks. His family would go out to eat, but Revils quickly exited any restaurants.

“I’d just get a bad feeling about it,” he said. He rarely left home.

He took handfuls of medications every day, at one point 20 pills, he said. He checked himself into a top-line hospital and tried every form of therapy the Veterans Affairs office could offer. Nothing seemed to make a dent in his condition.

Then came Donna. She was a rescue puppy from Hurricane Harvey who had been treated for a shotgun wound.

Connecting the two survivors was K9s For Warriors, the nation’s largest provider of trained service dogs to veterans suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and military-related sexual trauma. The organization rescues these dogs from high-kill shelters and, after training, pairs them with veterans like Revils.

“They’re saving shelter dogs, training them, and transforming them into heroes,” said Susanne Kogut, president and executive director of Petco Love, the charitable foundation for the pet store of the same name.

In San Antonio, Petco’s foundation has put $2 million toward a new facility for K9s For Warriors. Situated on land leased from the city of San Antonio for a dollar a year and located next door to the city’s Animal Care Services center, the Petco Love K9 Center will be the organization’s hub for the southwestern United States. The center is set to open in mid-September.

Rescue dogs from the city — as well as from across Texas and surrounding states — will help lessen the organization’s waitlist for veterans seeking help, said the organization’s chief operating officer, Jason Snodgrass. The waitlist is on average more than three years long.

For those who receive a dog, the transformation can be dramatic.

After Revils was matched with Donna in late 2019 following a three-week program at K9s For Warrior’s headquarters in Florida, he said he was able to reduce his medications to the point that he currently takes none. He said that with Donna’s assistance, his therapy sessions now actually help him and he’s no longer bound to stay home. He can sleep through the night. His family life, previously under strain from his condition, has been restored, he said.

“This organization literally saved my life,” he said. “Donna and I are living proof that it’s effective.”

Jodie Revels takes his service dog, Donna, on a walk through a Florida park. Credit: Courtesy / K9s For Warriors

Although Donna’s calm and temperate nature is part of what helps Revils, she is much more than an emotional support animal. Research shows that for these kinds of service dogs, it is their specific training that is most beneficial to veterans like Revils.

The most common and most effective task of these animals is “disrupting” oncoming episodes, reported a 2020 study in Frontiers in Psychology that was supported in part by K9s For Warriors.

Untreated, this kind of trauma can be deadly. On average, more than 17 veterans a day killed themselves in 2018, according to the latest figures available from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Revils said Donna can recognize when he is on the verge of a panic attack before he does and alerts him to it — tugging at him to let her outside or to play and breaking his line of thought.

“I can tell what she’s thinking, and she can tell what I’m thinking most of the time,” he said.

Among her other trained tasks, she has a command called “look.” When Revils is checking out at an ATM, for example, she lies down and looks in a given direction. When someone approaches, she wags her tail to let Revils know so it isn’t a surprise.

K9s For Warriors has paired nearly 700 veterans with service dogs since its founding in 2011 and rescued more than 1,300 dogs overall.

A temporary sign stands on the other side of a chain link fence where construction crews are building the future Petco Foundation K9 Center. This is next to the City of San Antiono Animal Care Services Center.
A temporary sign stands on the other side of a chain-link fence where construction crews are building the Petco Love K9 Center. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

The upcoming, 5,000-square-foot, 30-kennel facility in San Antonio will focus on larger rescue dogs who will be tested and housed and receive initial veterinary care until they’re ready for further training at the organization’s headquarters in Florida.

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Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham covered business and technology for the San Antonio Report.