Two Gentle Giants. One Imposing Message.

For nearly two decades, Sergeant First Class Joe Swoboda served his country with distinction. But during three deployments to Iraq between 2003 and 2005, he saw and did things that changed him forever. He now has Post Traumatic Stress Disease (PTSD) as a result of those wartime experiences. The repeated detonation of bombs resulted in his traumatic brain injury (TBI).

“What I experienced in Iraq, day in and day out, made it nearly impossible for me to return to normal life as a civilian,” said Swoboda. In desperation, he reached out to K9s For Warriors, a Ponte Vedra organization that pairs service dogs with veterans diagnosed with PTSD and TBI.

“It changed my life. Having Lilly as my service dog is like having a ‘Battle Buddy’ by my side, all the time,” said Joe. “Along with the love and support of my family, I feel whole again.”

Giving Warriors And Shelter Dogs A New Leash On Life. Ninety-five percent of the canines used in the K9s For Warriors program are former rescue/shelter dogs or owner surrenders. K9s For Warriors carefully selects dogs for their program from animal shelters across the country and professionally trains them at their facility. Each dog is matched with a warrior to live, learn and bond together for three weeks in the company of up to four other warrior-dog teams. There is no charge to the veteran. Each warrior-dog team is a partnership, which means not only do dogs care for their warriors, but warriors must provide proper care for their dogs. And, it’s working.

K9s For Warriors is the only service dog organization for post-9/11 veterans that requires them to live and train on site with their service dog before going home. As a result, the program has a 96 percent success rate and, within six months of graduation, 92 percent of warrior graduates have reduced or eliminated their prescription medication. This year, K9s For Warriors launched “Stop 22,” a campaign aimed at raising awareness of and action to end the epidemic of veteran suicides. It is estimated that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. [1]

“We’re losing 8,000 of America’s military heroes each year due to suicide, which is heart-breaking and unacceptable,” said Shari Duval, president, K9s For Warriors. Let’s put that into perspective, if that’s even possible. 22 veterans a day are committing suicide. In two days and nine hours, that number climbs to 53 — the equivalent of an entire NFL football team. Over the period of two months, two weeks, three days and two hours, the number rises to 1696 veterans who lose their lives to suicide — the total number of players in the NFL.

Lilly, a Labrador Mastiff mix, was pulled from a high-kill shelter and trained to become a service dog by K9s For Warriors. She was paired with Joe two years ago, almost as soon as he arrived on campus. Now, Joe travels the country with Lilly, to talk to veterans about K9s for Warriors and to help bring awareness to the public about the Stop 22 Campaign. We talked with Joe at this year’s Global Pet Expo in Orlando just prior to the K9 Advantix II presentation, announcing its support of the program for the second year in a row. “I had a guy call me last month. He was desperate, and felt he had no other option but to kill himself,” said Joe. “The guy was married and had four kids. And he was ready to end it all. We talked and I told him I knew what he was going through. I was there. I told him about K9s for Warriors and how they changed my life; how Lilly has changed my life.”

“I tell veterans that you can still have a life after combat. It will be a different life, but it can be a good life,” Joe told us. “Seek help. Call K9s for Warriors. Get a dog and prepare to live,” he added.

[1] U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Mental Health Services, Suicide Prevention Program, Suicide Data Report 2012, Accessed 1/30/15.

Well Done…Is Better Than Well Said.

As a young couple, Anthony and Monisha had all but one thing in common. He grew up with a profound love for dogs. She had been raised to fear them. But, once he introduced her to his own family pet, a Jack Russell Terrier named Bagel, how could she resist? “Bagel welcomed me into the wonderful world of dogs by worming is way gently into my heart. Once a dog worms his way into your heart, it changes you,” said Monisha.

Besides – Anthony was Monisha’s soul mate, whom she loved and trusted implicitly. Level-headed and with their sights set on becoming doctors, they were meant to be married, and she was destined to  love dogs.

After their pre-dog wedding, they settled into a Central Florida home. Over a period of time, he gently convinced her to consider bringing a dog into their family-fold, sooner than later. They agreed that this was not a decision to be taken lightly, so together they visited the Sanford location of the SPCA of Central Florida every week. For one reason or another, the couple could not agree on which dog to adopt. They remained positive and committed to the cause, convinced that soon, their patience would pay off.

On the eighth week, the couple walked past another countless number of homeless dogs in the shelter, each one with a compelling back story. The secret desire to just take each one home was outweighed by the mitigating factor that it’s simply impossible to save all of them.

And then, one dog timidly met each of their gazes. Frightened, but appearing to know this might be his last chance at redemption, he powered up his best irresistible traits and caught the attention of Monisha and Anthony.

They named him Franklin, after Benjamin Franklin, whose statue rests on a bench at the University of Pennsylvania. Now married 19 years, Monisha remembers, “Anthony and I lunched near that statue almost daily during our 10 years of medical school in Philadelphia.”

Franklin. A Dog’s Life.

A two-year-old English Foxhound, Franklin had been found wandering the woods in rural Florida, wearing a hunting collar. Sometimes, when a dog bred for hunting is no longer able to do his job, he is dumped in rural areas, or left behind in the woods to fend for himself. Obviously, not every dog ends up as fortunate as Franklin.

Even though Franklin may have displayed some shyness, what attracted the couple to the dog was his stoic attitude. “He was confined to a kennel with another dog who had pooped all over the place. Franklin was clearly not happy with his roommate and was staying as far away from him as he could. When we took him out to the play yard, he ran around and seemed genuinely happy to play with us. But when we returned him to the kennel, he resumed his ‘I’m so disgusted by you’ attitude toward his roommate. He even gave Anthony a surly look. We knew then we had to bring him home,” said Monisha.

Franklin: Best Dog, Ever.

Once home, Franklin didn’t wag his tail. In fact, Monisha and Anthony just thought his tail was one that would remain in a permanent down mode. It wasn’t a tail set between his back legs, which could indicate that he was scared. No, it was just a tail that remained downward, with no motion whatsoever. He felt safe in one room of their home — the laundry room. Those first few weeks, he would always return to his safe room after going outside for walks or eating his meal.

Three weeks to the day after Franklin came home with Monisha and Anthony, the couple was sitting in their living room. “We heard this pitter patter of paws and looked at one another,” said Monisha. Franklin had wandered out of his safe room, looked at the couple and raised his tail. “It’s as if he knew this was really his permanent home, and he was showing us,” said Monisha.

Franklin’s Friends, based in Maitland, Florida, raises money through a variety of events as well as through direct donor solicitation. The organization accepts and reviews applications from local animal charities for their fundraising dollars all year. While they strive to support what they believe are the three pillars of animal welfare: Rescue/Shelter, Spay/Neuter and Community Education, they do restrict their funds to 501(c)(3) organizations or government agencies that have the highest standards of veterinary care. The application asks what kind of screening tests are done on intake, what vaccines are administered, how kennels are sanitized, parasite control measures, testing and treatment for heartworm and heartworm prevention protocols. For more information, visit Franklin’s Friends website and follow them on the Franklin’s Friends Facebook page.

To read the full story and view more photos, visit The New Barker digital series and go to page 30 of the magazine (winter 2014/15).

“Well Done Is Better Than Well Said.” – a quote by Benjamin Franklin.