A group of dogs is trained in the K9s for Warriors program, which is coming to San Antonio.
Trainers at K9s for Warriors in Jacksonville, Florida, work with a group of dogs. The nonprofit soon will take in San Antonio strays. Credit: Courtesy / K9s for Warriors

Qualifying dogs that enter the custody of the City of San Antonio’s Animal Care Services will soon be given a new alternative to adoption, fostering, or euthanasia: helping area military veterans physically and mentally navigate a healthy, civilian life.

K9s for Warriors, a Jacksonville, Florida-based nonprofit, is planning to start construction on its first service-dog screening facility outside the Sunshine State this year in San Antonio. It will be located just south of ACS’s main facility at 4710 U.S. Highway 151 on 3.3 acres of vacant, City-owned land.

“Anytime we get a proposal to have more animals adopted, it’s a good thing. To have that happen here with the added benefit of helping our veterans makes this a win-win for the City,” Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said Thursday after City Council unanimously approved a 10-year ground lease with the nonprofit for $1 per year.

The far Westside dog-housing facility is slated to take in 200 to 300 dogs a year from ACS starting in 2020. In San Antonio, they’ll be given health checks and some basic training. Once they find good candidates for the full course, they’ll be shipped to Florida, where they will be trained on their full campus. Those that don’t make the cut will be placed back at ACS.

Veterans across the nation who served after 9/11 and have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), brain injury, or military sexual trauma can apply to receive a dog. There’s no charge for the dog, and the veterans receive three to four weeks of training with their service dog and unlimited followup help.

Pelaez met K9s for Warriors CEO Rory Diamond about two years ago when they participated in the Presidential Leadership Scholars program, Diamond said. That connection – and the fact that San Antonio is known as Military City, USA – led Diamond to tour the city.

“Jacksonville and San Antonio are very similar cities. We have communities with lots of veterans, and the love for veterans in San Antonio, you just feel – we hear it, we see it,” Diamond told Council members, just as he feels it in Jacksonville, which has two large naval bases and one of the largest veteran populations in the nation.

Heber Lefgren, director of ACS, said he met with K9s for Warriors representatives about a year ago.

They told him that they have more qualified veterans than they do dogs, Lefgren told Council. “I reminded them that I have plenty of [dogs].”

In fiscal year 2018, ACS took in more than 31,000 animals, according to a spokeswoman. ACS had a live-release rate of nearly 92 percent for canines last month, in line with its animals overall for 2018 and a drastic improvement from 32 percent in 2011. A shelter is considered a “no-kill” shelter if its live-release rate is above 90 percent. Of the 174 dogs ACS euthanized in December, 93 were classified as healthy.

Animal Care Services is located at 4710 State Hwy 151.
K9s for Warriors’ San Antonio facility will be just south of the City’s Animal Care Services on U.S. Highway 151. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A lot of service dog companies only use purebred canines, Diamond said, but most of K9s for Warriors’ dogs come from shelters.

There’s plenty of dogs that need forever homes, Pelaez said, but large strays – known as “San Antonio Brown Special,” he said – are especially hard to place.

To be accepted into K9s for Warriors, dogs must approximately meet height (22 inches), weight (50 pounds), and age (2) requirements. Dogs with behavioral or major health problems are also screened out before three to six months of training on campus, Diamond told the Rivard Report on Friday.

“One of the reasons for the selection of the larger dogs is for mobility issues – so we can help a warrior get out of a chair, off the ground, support when they’re walking,” said Brett Simon, president of K9s for Warriors. “If we’re using a smaller dog then they have issues supporting the weight of a veteran.”

There will likely be volunteer opportunities for community members to foster dogs that need time to recover from medical procedures or get older to enter the program, Simon said.

The nonprofit is more likely to select less aggressive-looking dogs, Diamond said, but there are no hard-and-fast breed restrictions.

“If you have a 6-5 Marine with a sleeve tattoo [who] people may be afraid to approach and we give him a pit bull or really aggressive-looking dog, people are going to run away,” Diamond said. “If we give him a golden retriever … they’ll run up to him. And that’s the goal, is to reintegrate into society. So we take that into account as we place dogs, but we try not to have breed restrictions.”

Petco Foundation has recently committed $2 million toward K9s for Warriors’ activities including the development of the local facility, said Susan Cosby, a local resident and director of Lifesaving Business Programs and Partnerships at the foundation.

K9s for Warriors will be launching a capital campaign this year to fund the rest of the holding facility, which is yet to be designed, Diamond said.

Between 11 percent and 30 percent of U.S. combat veterans, depending on which war they served in, experience PTSD in a given year, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. PTSD, a mental health problem, is linked to depression, chronic pain, and suicide. About 20 veteran and active-duty service members take their own lives each day.

K9s For Warriors has placed more than 850 dogs, Diamond said, and it has had “near zero” suicides among veterans.

The federal government has not yet given service dogs its blessing as an official treatment for PTSD, according to the Washington Post.

But studies published by Purdue University last year, which included K9s for Warriors participants, indicates that service dogs may have physiological benefits for veterans experiencing PTSD. While not a cure for PTSD, researchers said, service dogs can serve as a treatment tool.

The study showed that most veterans with PTSD are able to reduce of eliminate the need for medication after graduating from K9s for Warriors, Lefgren said, and they are more likely to attend school and work.

That’s the main goal of K9s for Warriors, said Diamond, to help reintegrate.

Diamond, who was recently elected to serve on Jacksonville’s City Council, is a former federal prosecutor who left his career at a private law firm to work for the nonprofit after doing pro bono work for it.

“I love dogs and I respect our veterans,” Diamond said. “It was super easy to figure out that [K9s for Warriors] is an awesome combination.”

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org