Every November we celebrate and honor our U.S. military veterans for their dedication and commitment to their country, but did you know that some of those men and women also work alongside brave troops of a four-legged variety? The U.S. military first began using dogs for service in 1942 during World War II, and the Army’s K-9 Corps program was officially recognized on March 13 of that same year.
Since then, the military continues to deploy dogs — owned and trained by the U.S. government (military working dogs or MWDs) or private groups (contract working dogs or CWDs) — to do everything from explosives and narcotic detection to patrol duties both overseas and stateside.
It’s because of the selfless acts of these animals that we celebrate National K9 Veterans Day on March 13 — to honor all former working dogs who have served in countless ways, many saving countless lives along the way. (You may also be familiar with service dogs who contribute to civilians and current and former military members in various capacities. For example, the dogs trained through the Stand With Me nonprofit go on to act as service animals for veterans with service-related mental health disabilities.)
This sacrifice is something Kristen Maurer, president and co-founder of Mission K9, couldn’t ignore. With a background in animal rescue, Maurer initially became acquainted with working dogs through an organization that helped her train her own adopted dog, Roxy, in narcotics detection. (Roxy later transitioned into Maurer’s service dog, helping to detect seizures.) It was around this time when she was asked to help transport a retired military dog that was arriving home from Kuwait and needed to get to Dallas. “That’s when I found out that military dogs were not being reunited with their handlers because their handlers could not afford the fees,” which can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars depending on the circumstances, says Maurer.
While she explains that it’s not always logistically possible for every handler to adopt their retired canine partner — MWDs and CWDs often have four or five handlers in their career and human deployments and families can create barriers — she didn’t want cost to be the hindering factor if a pairing was otherwise possible.
For the next few years, together with her soon-to-be business partner, she tried to help reunite and find homes for as many veteran K9s as possible, but says she knew they could do more — these animals deserved more. So, in 2014. Maurer and a few others officially launched Mission K9, a non-profit focused on rescuing, rehabilitating, and rehoming retired working dogs for this next phase of their life.
It became immediately apparent a need was there. “It went gangbusters,” says Maurer of the organization’s opening, estimating she helped as many as 30 dogs that first year alone. “I spent 2014 flying all over the nation picking up military dogs and delivering them to handlers,” who were overjoyed to see their partner.
The bonds these human and canine vets have is unlike any other — something Jessica Harris, founder of K9 Salute, a maker of dog treats which a percentage of profits benefit veteran and current working dogs, witnessed first hand. As a retired combat medic in the Washington Army National Guard, Harris spent several of the last years of her military career in active duty as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. While stationed in Iraq, she says she often saw airmen and their K9s interacting. “Seeing those dogs in action was definitely special and really gave me an appreciation for working dogs and what they do,” she says.
Back at home, Harris says she became keenly aware of the risks other K9s working stateside, such as law enforcement or police dogs, were taking and the all-too-common casualties that resulted. These heartbreaking stories of dogs who were killed on the front line or later succumbed to injuries, oftentimes due to lack of protective equipment, struck a chord with Harris.
Wanting to make a difference, and simultaneously recognizing a lack of nutritional options in the treat space, Harris got to work developing the wholesome dog treats that would eventually become the range of K9 Salute products. The business continues to evolve, but the main objective has stayed true to Harris’ mission for the brand: supporting veteran and working canine communities to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved. Some of her recent donations have helped law enforcement purchase protective vests and first aid kits for K9s as well as support the efforts of the K9 PTSD Center.
Similarly, much has changed since Maurer first started her work — thanks to the 2015 Military Working Dogs Act, retired MWDs must be returned to U.S. soil at the expense of the government, and their human handlers are given first right of adoption. Still, it’s not uncommon for Mission K9 to step in to foot the bill for the flight, which can be as much as $6,000 for one dog flying from Japan, she says. Once back on U.S. soil, it’s still up to the handler to retrieve the dog, which is still a costly and oftentimes laborious effort, explains Maurer, so this is another way Mission K9 steps in.
For the veteran K9s who can’t be placed with one of their handlers, Mission K9 rehabilitates and adopts out the animals, many of whom naturally have a lot of emotional baggage from the stress of their previous environments, she explains. “We teach them how to be dogs again,” she says, adding that some dogs are immediately ready to relax upon retirement and others need more time to decompress. “Once you see these dogs and look into their eyes, it becomes a passion because you just know what they’ve been through and how much they’ve given up in life to do this thankless job,” she says.
At the end of the day, every veteran canine hero has a story, and they all deserve a comfortable retirement, which is at the heart of everything Mission K9 does, says Maurer.
“These dogs give everything,” she says. “Every day they get on that front line, and every day they work hard to protect our soldiers, our first responders, and our citizens. And for that, when they retire, I just feel like it’s our duty to give back to them.”