An evening out for Shannon Walker usually means heading to the mall in Vancouver, Washington, with her 17-year-old twins, Jacob and Jarod Kendall. But instead of shopping bags, they hold the leashes of dogs wearing vests emblazoned with stars and stripes. The dogs pad in and out of elevators, up and down escalators, learning to ignore the aromas from the food court and the kids swooping in to pet them. "Sometimes people follow us -- it's like a parade," says Shannon, 46, a champion dog trainer who is preparing her charges to become service animals for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Shannon, a single mom, provides the animals for free through her nonprofit Northwest Battle Buddies (NBB). So far seven canines have been placed with veterans, and she is now training 12 others at Man's Best Friend, the 4-acre facility she owns in nearby Battle Ground. To qualify, combat veterans diagnosed with PTSD must have been honorably discharged, be clean and sober, and have a stable income and housing as well as confirmation from a doctor or therapist that they would benefit from a service pet. As for the dogs, Shannon rescues them from local shelters. "When I walk in and look behind the chain-link fence, I'm always thinking, 'It's Christmas Day for somebody,'" she says.
The idea for NBB came about in 2011, when Kevin Williams, 26, a former army gunner, stopped at Man's Best Friend to buy dog food. He had just learned he wouldn't be allowed to move into veterans' housing unless his beloved but neurotic Labrador, Sammy, became certified as a service animal. He asked Shannon to help and she agreed, even though she had never done training for a vet with PTSD. "Sammy was a present to myself when I got home from Iraq," says Kevin, a Purple Heart recipient who suffered brain, back and knee injuries. "I didn't want to lose her."
Sammy had to live at the kennel while she was being taught to heel, walk quietly on a leash and alert Kevin to approaching strangers. He and Sammy spent two additional months with Shannon learning to work as a team. As the trio hopped on buses and trains and visited restaurants and stores, Kevin began to open up. He had enlisted at 17, saw friends killed in combat and knew far too many vets who had overdosed on drugs or committed suicide. "I was constantly going to funerals," says Kevin, who tried to dull his panic with oxycodone and heroin. After completing a rehab program with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), he's now clean.
Shannon, whose father was in the Air Force and whose sons plan to join the military, was so moved by his story that she gifted him the training, which would have cost several thousand dollars. Kevin, in turn, credits Shannon and Sammy -- now calm and obedient -- with giving him his life back. "Before, I'd wake from nightmares, grab my gun and search the room in fear," he says. "Now I open my eyes, see Sammy sleeping soundly and I know I'm safe."