Dogs are really something. They can learn to sit, fetch and do tricks, or they can keep their quiet company, tuned in exactly to our wavelength.
But the dogs John Lopez trains for his Rogersville-based charity K9s for Camo can do all of that and a little bit more. Lopezâ€™s dogs can help provide stability for people with post-traumatic stress syndrome or traumatic brain injury, or they can alert or protect a diabetic facing seizure. The dogs Lopez trains are special dogs, given free of charge to special people â€” military veterans.
Lopez, a veteran himself, wasnâ€™t always a dog person.
â€śI had a fear of dogs growing up,â€ť he said. â€śOverseas, our first sergeant told us that when we get home, we should get rid of our fears, and it just clicked.â€ť
Lopez served in Afghanistan, and while a fear of dogs plagued him on a deep-down level, he spent a year serving courageously as a combat engineer, clearing roads of mines and improvised explosive devices for convoys.
Taking his first sergeantâ€™s advice, Lopez chose to face his fear upon his return to the U.S., and he made a real about-face. He is now the proprietor of the Howliday Inn Pet Resort, a dog boarding, grooming, daycare and training center in Rogersville, and to offering Standing OBEYtion dog training.
But thatâ€™s his working life.
Lopez also has a service life, and thatâ€™s at the helm of K9s for Camo, the nonprofit he started a year ago this month.
Itâ€™s an organization that helps many, and in many ways â€” not all of them expected.
First, Lopez rescues shelter dogs, sometimes from death row. He checks them out in person, and he looks for the traits he needs to see in a trainable dog â€” one that isnâ€™t overbearing but isnâ€™t hiding, either. The ideal dog is naturally calm, he said, and isnâ€™t motivated by its predatory instincts.
â€śWhen you bring a dog into public, if the set-point is extremely high-energy, thatâ€™s not going to help a veteran,â€ť he said.
Lopez starts out training the dogs himself, but the ideal dog quickly ends up in prison, as it happens. They donâ€™t go there because of misbehavior; rather, Lopez works with inmates at the Ozarks Correctional Facility to have them further train the dogs. The dogs become well socialized, and the inmates learn a valuable skill they can carry with them when they are free.
Lopez said that about 60 percent of the dogs he has trained have been placed with people with PTSD. â€śWeâ€™ve had one guy who hadnâ€™t been to the mall in ten years, who hadnâ€™t been out to eat with his wife in ten years,â€ť he said. â€śHis first week with a dog, he did both.â€ť
Some people with PTSD live almost hermit-like existences, Lopez noted, since being out in public can be hard. With a service dog, these veterans can be back among the public, sometimes with reduced need for medication.
Lopez also has success stories for the dogs he has trained to help people with diabetes. One dragged an owner in a near-coma state out of a closet and found help for him. Another blocked the head of a person in seizure and then found help when the incident was over.
Lopez may not have firsthand experience with diabetes or seizure disorder, but he knows something about PTSD.
â€śI had a lot of nightmares when I came home,â€ť he said. It was his faith that got him through â€¦ and his dog.
â€śMinus God, a dog is the next best thing, besides pills,â€ť he reflected.
When people have PTSD, they may experience a constant state of panic or anxiety, especially among loud noises or crowds. Lopez said that a trained dog can post and block for a person out in public. A dog will rest between a veteranâ€™s legs and look backward while that person is occupied, maybe at a bank or a cash register. The dog can alert its owner with a nose or a paw if someone is approaching.
Lopez feels gratified that the dogs he has trained have been able to help veterans to lead better lives, and he is also glad to be able to help prisoners to rehabilitate. â€śAll the guys will tell you how the dogs have helped,â€ť he said. â€śSome of them bubble up, and theyâ€™re about to cry, theyâ€™re so happy. Itâ€™s not for themselves; theyâ€™re glad to be helping others.â€ť
K9s for Camo is a charitable organization. More information is available at k9sforcamo.org.
Editorâ€™s note: Do you know someone who is doing good work in the community? Let us know at email@example.com, and perhaps weâ€™ll feature that person in next weekâ€™s â€śPass it onâ€ť front-page feature story.
Mail photo by Karen Craigo
These dogs are in training to serve people with PTSD, seizure disorder, diabetes and more.
Tank, a K9s for Camo trainee, is all trained up and ready to head home with his veteran, Greg.