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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."
"Other ex-soldiers who met Kevin at the VA began contacting Shannon, so she and the twins began schooling more animals. Shannon had learned obedience training at 24, when her future husband demanded she discipline her unruly shepherd or get rid of him. That's when she discovered Schutzhund, a German sport involving tracking, obedience and protection. "I knew right away that was what I wanted to do," she says.
Shannon began training dogs at home and eventually opened her kennel in 1999 -- no easy feat with 4-year-old twins. "The boys would go down for a nap and I'd run outside for a bit to work with the dogs," she says. "Later, I had the kids wash feed bowls and tag along on walks." Jarod now puts in 20 hours a week (40 during school breaks). Jacob logs almost as much time but says his devotion is nothing compared to his mom's. "She's the greatest," he says. "She's a gift from God."
Shannon customizes each canine's training. "Veterans with back injuries require animals who can pick things up," she explains. "And I have one gal who needs the dog to bark when the alarm goes off because she is deaf in one ear." Randy Guillory, 60, a Vietnam vet still suffering from nightmares, now holds his pit bull Leia's paw during the night. When he trembles in his sleep, Leia licks his face, which stops the dream. "None of my ex-wives would wake me up," says Randy. "I have a good friend here now. I'm a happy man."
Despite strong anecdotal evidence about the benefits of service dogs for vets with PTSD, the VA won't pay for them, making Shannon's job even more critical. She found a veterinarian to provide free medical care, and a company that regularly donates thousands of pounds of dog food. In addition to investing her own money, Shannon holds fundraisers and is looking into grants to ensure that NBB survives and grows. "We rely on the hearts of people who believe in our mission," she says. "When I hand over an animal to a veteran, I know that both the dog and the owner will respect, protect and love each other. It's an awesome moment -- and the beginning of an incredible relationship."
To learn more or to make a donation, visit northwestbattlebuddies.org.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.