A new volunteer group is gearing up to provide highly trained service dogs at no charge to help military veterans with physical or mental disabilities.
MK9s Service Dogs is working closely with Loudoun-based veterans’ organizations to identify veterans in need and community sponsors to help pay for the purchase and care of the dogs in training.
The group is led by founder Michele Khol, the wife of a disabled veteran and a mother of an active duty Naval officer, who has trained service dogs for more than 17 years.
Khol got her start in training service dogs with Guiding Eyes for the blind. She and her family raised 18 services dogs for the organization. She then worked more than six years with another veterans’ service dog organization before launching her own program this year.
Khol said the program is focused on providing highly trained dogs that are carefully matched with their veteran.
“We first identify the veteran. Once the veteran has been identified and we know what his particular needs are to help mitigate his disability, then we go out to the breeders we have relationships with and select a puppy based on what the veteran needs,” she said.
MK9s’ first trainee, a yellow lab named Beck, is expected to graduate the 15- to 18-month training process in June and will then be dispatched to help a Marine veteran who has post-traumatic stress disorder and battles anxiety. Beck is trained to do routine tasks, like retrieving keys, wallet or phone (he really likes retrieving his dog bowl). But he also will closely monitor his veteran’s anxiety level and alerting him to take a breath or take a walk when the stress builds. Beck can even find the best path to help him exit a building and get into open space. Scent imprinting using worn clothing and modern technology of audio texts and videos from the veteran help build the important bond over the long training period.
“Beck hears Joey’s voice every day,” Khol said.
The veterans are required to participate in hands-on training at least once a month and the training team also works closely with therapists and other members of the veteran’s support team to ensure the work is being coordinated.
“Our ultimate mission is we want the veteran to be able to get back out and live life to the fullest and be part of their community and their family and doing things that they want to be able to do,” Khol said.
Currently the organization has enough volunteer puppy mentors and is building a medical and veterinarian support team.
The next step is to identify local veterans in need and start them in the vetting process. Also, they want to build the community donations that will be used for the purchase, feeding and medical care of the puppies. The all-volunteer group has no office space, salaries or other overhead, but needs to cover the roughly $7,500 per cost through community sponsorships.
“We all have jobs; we are not working at this to be our source of income. This is our way of giving back to those who have done so much for all of us,” Khol said.
“It is important for us to help veterans. All of us love dogs and have either military backgrounds, Secret Service, police have worked with dogs or have dogs. They understand the benefit of having a dog,” she said. “They have seen just how much the dogs can make an impact on the lives of their partners.”
Volunteer Jim Klock is in line to be the mentor for MK9s next puppy. “It’s all about helping veterans in our area get the help they need,” he said. ‘We see really big things happening.”
“We’re excited because Loudoun County has been so welcoming to us,” Khol said.
To learn more about how to nominate a veteran for a service dog or to contribute the organization’s efforts go to mk9servicedogs.org. You also can follow the puppies’ progress at facebook.com/mk9servicedogs.