Nearly 4 million dogs enter shelters in the United States each year. Though there can be a misconception that something is “wrong” with them, many of these dogs wind up in shelters through no fault of their own, such as an owner moving. When given the chance, many shelter dogs become wonderful pets or even service dogs. In honor of October’s Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, here are three dogs who started out homeless and became inspiring service dogs.
KIRA: Labrador/pit bull mix rescued by Shelter to Soldier
Kira, a Labrador/pit bull mix, was rescued and trained by California-based Shelter to Soldier, a nonprofit that rescues dogs from local shelters and trains them to be psychiatric service dogs for post-9/11 combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
“Our core mission is saving lives two at a time,” says Graham Bloem, founder, president, and head trainer of Shelter to Soldier. “And we’re actually saving families in many cases.”
That’s certainly what happened when Kira went to work for Vic Martin, a Navy veteran who sustained a brain injury while deployed overseas in the Persian Gulf. He was medically retired on June 27, 2013, and back home with his wife, son, and two daughters, Martin found his brain injury caused speech issues, such as stuttering, as well as depression and severe anxiety disorder.
“I couldn’t function. I started to realize more and more that I was afraid to leave the house. My fears increased so badly that I couldn’t answer the phone, I couldn’t answer the door, I couldn’t check the mail, all because I had this fear that something horrible was about to happen,” Martin says. “I was living in a prison that was my own body, my own brain.”
Martin contemplated suicide before his wife discovered Shelter to Soldier. The day Martin went to meet Bloem about Kira was the first time in three months he had left the house. Since the rescued dog joined the family in November 2014, she has helped Martin feel secure enough to shower alone in the house. She calms him during stressful situations, such as when a helicopter flies over the house. She learned to recognize when he is having night terrors—“like nightmares but in 3D and surround sound”—and climbs onto the bed and lays on his chest to lick his face until he comes to, and alerts his wife to the situation.
Thanks to the comfort and security Kira brings, Martin is able to leave the house to go camping, run errands, and drive his daughters to and from school every day. He even attends their school performances and open houses.
“I hate to think about what would have happened if I didn’t have Kira,” Martin says. “Dogs are medicine if they’re given the opportunity to be medicine.”
HOUSTON: Black Labrador retriever rescued by Service Dogs, Inc.
Houston, a black Lab, was rescued and trained by Texas-based nonprofit Service Dogs, Inc., which rescues dogs and trains them to serve for people with mobility or hearing challenges.
“Our mission is to rescue unwanted dogs abandoned to animal shelters and transform them into lifelines for people living with disabilities,” says Sheri Soltes, founder and president of Service Dogs, Inc., adding, “We adopt a lot of black dogs because, statistically, black dogs and black cats are adopted the least.”
When Laura Halvorson, who uses a wheelchair, met Houston in November 2013, it was “love at first wag.” Since then, he’s opened doors for her “both figuratively and literally,” she says.
“When I am alone my cell phone is like a lifeline for me but I drop it often. Due to my muscular dystrophy, if I drop something on the ground it is almost impossible to retrieve it. Having Houston help with retrieving tasks has helped tremendously,” Halvorson says. “Houston helps me pick up objects that I've dropped, sometimes objects as small as a credit card or quarter. He also tugs open my refrigerator and grabs bottled water out for me as well as tugs doors open and closed for me, tugs off socks and blankets, and pushes drawers and the dishwasher closed for me. Recently he's also been taught to paw my foot plates down in my wheelchair when I transfer back into my wheelchair.”
When Halvorson was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Texas 2014, an advocacy honor, Houston was by her side, and they’ve traveled together across Texas to a variety of advocacy events.
“Houston is definitely proof that there are terrific dogs in shelters waiting to be adopted,” she says. “Just looking into Houston’s eyes, you can tell he’s incredibly sweet. He’s very attentive and loves to help.”
LOLA: Border terrier mix rescued by Dogs for the Deaf
Lola, a border terrier mix, was rescued and trained by Oregon-based nonprofit Dogs for the Deaf, which trains rescued dogs to be hearing dogs as well as autism-assistance dogs and program-assistance dogs for teachers, counselors, and physicians.
“Sometimes they’re just ragamuffins [when rescued],” says Kelly Gonzales, development director of Dogs for the Deaf. “Then, all of a sudden, they have a purpose in life…They want to work, and they want to have a purpose. To watch them transform is pretty phenomenal.”
Public protocols for service dogs
When you see a service dog wearing a vest, the No. 1 rule is: Never pet a service dog.
“If you want to talk to or pet the service dog, ask the handler first. Remember, the dog is working—distractions can cause a problem,” advises Charlene MacKenzie, whose service dog Lola came to her from Dogs for the Deaf. “Service dogs are not pets, and that should be clearly understood.”
When Dogs for the Deaf found Lola, she was a “straggly, unkempt, malnourished puppy with body sores and a too-tight collar,” according to Charlene MacKenzie, who was paired with Lola in 2007 after her first hearing dog, Haley Angel, died of cancer. But Lola blossomed into a smart, energetic, and good-natured dog, who was named the 2013 Hearing Dog of the Year by the American Humane Association.
“As with Haley and now with Lola, my independence and self-confidence have vastly improved. While my disability is invisible, her vest alerts others to my hearing loss,” MacKenzie says. “I recognize in myself what I understand is the tendency for people with hearing loss—to withdraw socially because of our limited speech comprehension, which makes it so difficult to participate. Lola has counteracted my withdrawal by attracting the interest and attention of others who have surprised me by being so willing to accommodate my hearing needs.”
At home, little Lola alerts MacKenzie to sounds from the smoke alarm, telephone, front and back door knocks, oven timer, and alarm clock by jumping on her and then leading her to the source of the sounds.
“Lola means everything to me! She is my constant companion, supporter, helper, playmate, canoe partner, soul mate. Her very presence provides a sense of security—reliance I can trust. Otherwise I'd be exhausted; hyper-vigilance in place of hearing takes so much energy,” MacKenzie says. “Lola is a living testimonial that there are wonderful dogs waiting to be adopted from animal shelters. She is a rescued abandoned dog who has rescued me. We both have benefitted beyond imagination.”
Searchable databases of adoptable pets:
Freelance journalist Jen Reeder’s rescued Lab mix, Rio, is a certified therapy dog. When they visit hospital patients together, she is proud to share that her charming dog is a former “pound puppy.”