K9s For Warriors – the nation’s largest provider of service dogs for American veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and/or military sexual trauma (MST) – graduated its 400th service dog team at the organization’s Ponte Vedra-based headquarters Thursday, Feb. 22.
The K9s For Warriors program helps veterans mitigate their symptoms and reintegrate into civilian society through professionally-trained service dogs. The three-week program features 120 hours of instruction on the nonprofit’s campus.
Following the pledge of allegiance and a rendition of the national anthem, K9s For Warriors veterans and their dogs each posed for a photo with their certificate in hand.
One of the graduates in the class, Jason Hudgins, said his K9s For Warriors experience has been life-changing.
"It's just been amazing," he said. "The staff here is amazing, being paired with an animal like George – when I first got him I didn't know what to expect – but he's changed my life."
Nicknamed King George, Hudgins’ dog is a rescue that has been a friend to the veteran since day one.
"He's become a life saver," Hudgins said. "He's always there, he's always got love to give even when I don't think I need it."
Michael Rodriguez is another graduate who said his dog, Trooper, offers him comfort when he needs it most.
"He likes to play," Rodriguez said, "but he's very focused. He can sense when there is something wrong with me, which is something amazing that I found out one night when I was feeling upset and out of nowhere he just came and gave me comfort."
Rodriguez said Trooper helps him feel more confident to get out and enjoy life.
"I was in a place that I wouldn't want to be out anywhere," he said about his previous disposition. "But [Trooper] gives me the confidence to go out there."
Founded in 2011 by Shari Duval, K9s For Warriors was initially established to help Duval’s son, Brett Simon, recover from PTSD. Since then, the organization has assisted veterans in 46 states and more than 150 cities. Most of the service dogs used for the program have been rescued from homelessness or shelters. For more information, visit www.k9sforwarriors.org.
Visit pontevedrarecorder.com for video coverage of the graduation.