VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Doug Monda’s hands trembled as he helped place a red, white and blue service dog vest on Ash, a yellow Labrador retriever. When Monda was done, Ash attentively sat at his feet, leaning slightly against his knees.
“When I first saw Ash with him, I just knew — Ash was never meant to be mine. She was destined to be his,” said Donna Kust, a Mutts with a Mission volunteer, as she clenched a tissue. Tears formed as Kust prepared to say goodbye to the dog she’d spent the past two years raising.
Mutts with a Mission, the area’s only accredited service dog provider, celebrated the certification of five new canines Friday at VFW Post 392 in Virginia Beach, ending with each going home with the veteran, first responder or agency with whom the dog was matched.
The five graduates represent a fraction of the regional need for assistance dogs. But just as great is the need for volunteers to raise the canines while they undergo two years of extensive training.
About 50 veterans and first responders apply for a Mutts with a Mission service dog each year. Just 15 are accepted annually, creating about a two-year wait. The nonprofit’s inability to accept more applications has much to do with a shortage of puppy raisers.
“Puppy raisers are our greatest asset and also our most hard-to-obtain asset,” said Brooke Corson, director of the nonprofit. “The number of dogs we have available depends on the number of puppy raisers we have.”
Beginning at 6 to 8 weeks of age, the puppies are exposed, socialized and trained so they are capable of completing tasks to mitigate veteran and first responder disabilities. During this process, the dogs live with “puppy raisers” — volunteers who care for the dogs, take them to class, do homework with them and take them out in public.
Mutts with a Mission currently has 28 dogs in various stages of training. Because the organization does not have enough puppy raisers, multiple dogs are sometimes placed in one home.
Kust is one of roughly 20 volunteers, taking in an 8-week-old Ash and helping her grow into a 2-year-old attentive mobility dog.
“To see her come full circle is amazing,” Kust said. “But I am heartbroken at the same time.”
Ash has been Kust’s shadow for nearly two years. The graduation means Ash is ready to go home with her new owner. A retired police officer and former Department of Defense contractor, Monda suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and Parkinson’s disease. He lives in Cocoa Beach, Fla.
“I can tell it is time because there is no more I can do for her, no more I can teach her,” Kust said. “I can tell Ash is ready to serve.”
Ash is the 15th service dog Kust has raised over the past 22 years, and she won’t be the last. The same night Kust handed Ash over, she took in Bronco, a 15-week-old black Labrador. The puppy, still growing into his blue “in training” vest, is already laser focused on Kust.
For the next two years, Kust will guide Bronco through his training, helping him hone various skills, including how to turn lights off and on, open and close doors, retrieve a bottle of water, get help and alert when it is time to take medication.
People often ask Kust how she could be a puppy raiser, spending two years raising a dog in her home only to give it away.
“It’s not easy. And you can draw a line in the sand, but all it takes is one wave or an ocean breeze and that line is gone,” Kust said. “It could be a twinkle in your puppy’s eye or a head tilt — not to mention all the puppy breath.”
Toting a full box of tissues, she joked that any puppy raiser watching their dog graduate should “forget about the small travel pack of tissues” — “just bring the whole box, because trust me, you will need it.”
But it is the moment you see your dog serving their person, she said, that makes the tears worth it.
“This is a puppy with a purpose, and when you see them with their person, you know they were never yours,” Kust said. “I know Ash’s person needs her much more than I ever will.”
The graduation ceremony culminated with each canine receiving a new vest, signifying they are certified service dogs. Two dogs will serve as facility dogs — one for Project Horizon and the other for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority in Dulles. The three others, including Ash, will be service dogs to their matched veteran or first responder.
Monda helped Ash put on her new vest. While Ash and Monda have spent only two weeks bonding, Ash is already is attuned to his needs, walking in stride with him and leaning against his legs when seated.
Kust cried as she took a video of the pair.
“It never gets any easier. But seeing her with him — that is why I do it,” Kust said.