On a Monday afternoon, a pit bull named Abby circles the room. A man, aided by a cane, walks over to Abby with treats in hand. Abby sits on command.
Two onlookers observe the scene. One twirls his fingers and he quietly observes. The other laughs as he takes off his hat labeled “Veteran Treatment Court Mentor”.
The room is quiet as the man continues to give command while the dog earns a treat or a pat on the head.
Standing in the corner is Michelle King, the founder of Heroes and Hounds. The program, located at The Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley, works alongside military veterans by teaching them to be dog trainers.
“We got a grant from Pedigree for training and enrichment,” King said. “I was talking to my husband, who is a Vietnam Veteran, and we got the idea for Heroes and Hounds.”
Through the program, certified trainers teach military Veterans how to train shelter dogs in order to prepare them for adoption. Dogs are paired with Veterans depending on the Veteran’s needs. The two will then follow a training curriculum with specific goals.
For most cases, a basic training curriculum includes Veterans helping dogs master common tricks and commands. The first command a dog will learn is to sit. From there, the dog will go on to learn to shake, lay down and focus.
The program is gaining more success each day, thanks to King.
“I have two passions in this world: dogs and Veterans,” King said.
King has seen several success stories among dogs and Veterans, with over 14 Veterans and 31 adoptions.
When the Veterans visit the shelter to train, they are helping shelter dogs become more socialized and obedient. However, the dogs are helping Veterans at the same time.
“They need what I need, and I need what they need,” Veteran Vickey Burns said.
The Pairing Assistance-Dogs with Soldiers (PAWS) suggests that this phenomenon is real. The recent study, conducted by Kaiser Permanente, revealed that Veterans paired with service dogs reported lower symptoms of PTSD, lower symptoms of depression-related functioning, better interpersonal relationships, less substance abuse and fewer psychiatric symptoms than Veterans without dogs.
This idea of helping Veterans overcome these symptoms has inspired King this past year as she celebrated the anniversary of Heroes and Hounds in April.
The love from King extends to her Veterans, who dedicate their time to help dogs receive a quicker adoption.
“It is never bittersweet [when dogs are adopted],” retired Airforce Veteran Doug Witmer said. “I am there to help the dogs get adopted, and doing so is a proud moment.”
More Veterans like Witmer are coming to Heroes and Hounds in order to find a way to adjust to post-war life. Institutions like The Veteran Treatment Court are starting to collaborate with Heroes and Hounds to make this happen.
“We want to connect these dogs with vets who really need them,” retired Army Veteran and Veteran Treatment Court Mentor Howard Jenkins said.
With the help of Heroes and Hounds, both Veterans and dogs can adjust to the new phases of their lives.
“The dogs make my heart a little bigger every day,” King said. “Just when you think you can’t love one more dog, they bring in another one.”
For more information about Heroes and Hounds, visit their official website.
Photos by Shelby Kast
Edited by Taylor Owens