One by one, service dogs and their veteran owners filed into Vancouver Mall to display their discipline and loyalty to one another.
Multiple tasks were laid out before them, including ascending and descending an escalator, entering the mall’s restroom, walking through a crowded department store and, finally, riding the elevator.
The obstacle course, although simple at a quick glance, can be difficult for veterans learning to reintegrate into civilian life after their military service. Yet it’s a requirement from the service dog provider, nonprofit Northwest Battle Buddies, for the pairs to prove they continue to be harmonious and trained.
In navigating the public space, the veterans — some of whom prefer to avoid those spaces altogether — illustrate their dedication to live life fully again, said Shannon Walker, Northwest Battle Buddies founder and CEO.
Soldiers may be deployed on missions that expose them to severe violence and life-threatening situations. They become attuned to a scene and cacophony of explosions and gunshots, or perhaps even experience sexual trauma in the military.
How to help
Donations to Northwest Battle Buddies can be made online at www.northwestbattlebuddies.org/take-action/ways-to-help.
Applications to become a puppy foster can also be found on the organization’s website.
When service members return to civilian life, away from the chaos and calamity of war, Walker said, they may come home with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
“When you come back from war, you’re separated from your brothers and sisters (who) would lay down their lives for you, and you would have done the same for them,” said former Marine Corps Veteran Chris Williams. “When you get back to normal civilian life, that’s gone. Having a service dog… brings that loyalty back into your life.”
Williams, who served two deployments in Afghanistan, medically retired in 2012 after being wounded by a roadside bomb during each mission. Upon arriving home, Williams said, he was antisocial and couldn’t conjure motivation to leave his home; his mind would spiral during a panic attack, deepening a divide between him and the present moment.
Those moments diminished when Williams met his white Labrador retriever, Gage.
“I was really in a dark place. I felt constantly on guard like somebody might attack me — even in my own home,” he said. “Since having (Gage), I kind of feed off of his calm energy in a lot of ways and definitely helps me function in society, really.”
Army veteran Crystal Campbell admitted she was hesitant to seek a service dog, believing she would face the stigma of having a disability — something made more apparent with a dog in a vest by her side.
But the reality is that she can’t function without her goofy four-legged bundle of golden fur, Wyatt, she said. His calm, yet sometimes uncoordinated, demeanor quickly eased Campbell’s apprehension about getting a service dog as he became an antidote to cure her overwhelming feelings.
Wyatt’s reassurances may look like a nonchalant lean against his owner’s legs or a loving stare, almost as if he’s saying, “I’m here for you,” she said. Before being paired with Wyatt, Campbell rarely went anywhere by herself and steered away from people in public, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to shop for groceries. It was a mentally exhausting way to live, she said.
“Now I feel like he gives me the confidence to go out and be in the world, not worrying about things,” Campbell said, adding that she gained a gift of courage as well as a friend.
Navy veteran James Potvin said his black Lab, Burke, eases his depression and comforts him when he experiences intense flashbacks.
Walker said not every veteran needs a service dog but, for those who do, having a slobbering companion can be life changing. Northwest Battle Buddies, headquartered in Battle Ground, is represented in 22 states through its contribution of 193 services dogs for veterans to date.
“What’s the greatest impact? Not one of (the) 193 veterans that we’ve gifted our service dogs to have committed suicide and are still living their life… with greater freedom and independence prior to meeting their service dogs,” she said.
Washington’s most recent data available from 2019 reported that 255 veterans died by suicide that year, accounting for 20 percent of all suicides in the state. The National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report from 2022 outlined that veteran suicide rates have decreased in the past two decades, but it remains the second leading cause of death among veterans under 45 years old.
Walker said veterans battling with PTSD are all fighters who refuse to be a statistic. They are attempting to live life again — spending it with their family, making community bonds and doing things that bring them joy. Service dogs can make this battle easier to beat. Veterans can find purpose in taking care of their companion.
The dogs are trained to wake their owner up from night terrors, interrupt incoming panic attacks or exist as a reliable friend. They can also provide a medical alert for seizures or dangerous blood sugar levels, as well as help their owner stay balanced.
A service dog’s journey
For months, Northwest Battle Buddies dogs learn basic commands, good house manners and tasks specific to helping veterans with PTSD.
To illustrate this journey, Walker created an ongoing video series highlighting the victories and challenges in training Koa, a black Labrador retriever. In the videos, featured on Walker’s YouTube channel “Shannon Walker the Pack Leader,” Koa tramps through grass and water or up and down stairs with his oversized paws.
Once dogs’ training with the handlers is complete, they are matched with veterans who then train with their companion five days a week for five weeks.
It can cost upwards of $25,000 to train a service dog, Walker said, yet veterans don’t incur any of these fees. They’re only obligated to cover the basic investments needed to make their companion happy, such as food and treats.
Providing service dogs for free is in tune with Walker’s mission to help veterans heal.
She operated a for-profit dog training business before launching Northwest Battle Buddies in 2012, which was inspired by a veteran who asked Walker to train his dog to help ease his PTSD. The experience convinced Walker, who then didn’t understand anything about the stress disorder, to create a nonprofit dedicated to helping veterans in similar situations.
To get matched with a battle buddy, veterans only need to have an honorable military discharge and a medical recommendation saying they’d benefit from a service dog. Applicants must also sign a contract stating they will “continue to live their life with the character and the integrity that got them qualified to have a service dog.”
‘Can I pet your dog?’
Campbell acknowledged that service dogs are undeniably adorable and deserve to get affection but added that this can be distracting to the pups who are technically “on the job.”
Instead, she recommended that people normalize seeing service dogs in public and not making a spectacle of it.
Most importantly, Walker added, people can help by extending a hand to veterans. Some may be isolated, depressed or in poor health — whether in their body or spirit.
“We have to find a way to stand in the gap for our veterans when they’re home struggling because they stood in the gap for us when we needed it,” she said. “That’s what makes us Americans; we need to take care of each other.”