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New Life K9s connects the PTSD-prone with service dogs through an army of support 

Combat veteran David Petersen's time in San Luis Obispo County was bookended by two life-changing events. He arrived in May 2020 after receiving in-patient treatment for suicide, and left for Oroville in Butte County last month to be a high school football and wrestling coach, this time with a service dog named Cole in tow.

click to enlarge SERVICE READY Veteran David Petersen found the ability to pursue a career as a high school sports coach in Oroville with the help of his New Life K9s service dog, Cole. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID PETERSEN
  • Photo Courtesy Of David Petersen
  • SERVICE READY Veteran David Petersen found the ability to pursue a career as a high school sports coach in Oroville with the help of his New Life K9s service dog, Cole.

"I have a lot of anxiety and night terrors. Cole holds me down and wakes me up. When I have bad days, he can help undress me, he can turn off and on the lights, he can alert the neighbors if I fall down," Petersen said. "Without Cole, I couldn't do the things I do. I'm very thankful for New Life K9s and his puppy parents."

New Life K9s is SLO County's only dog training program that is tailored for veterans and first responders experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Nine and a half years in the Army, including multiple deployments to Serbia, Panama, and Somalia, left Petersen with depression, complex PTSD, and multiple traumatic brain injuries. After a "war detox" at the Ohio-based Save A Warrior program, he moved to SLO County with his physician assistant wife but his headaches persisted.

A friend who also received a service dog through the agency introduced Petersen to New Life K9s. Usually a two-year wait, the veteran lucked out and was paired with Cole within two months in November 2020.

"We do want to make sure that we match up the temperament for both the human and the dog," said Jennifer Tate, New Life K9s program manager. "They just become a member of the family; it's just that they provide that service and support for the recipient. They're with them for the remainder of their natural life."

Headquartered in SLO since 2014, New Life K9s trains labradors and golden retrievers through prison facilities before they are ready for service. Receiving a service dog through the program is free of charge. Tate said that they don't charge clients for dog training either, though recipients would have to pay for items like veterinary appointments and general care once the dogs are paired with them. In the meantime, New Life K9s taps into its nonprofit status and depends on donors, grants, and fundraisers. Using prison facilities for training also keeps costs low.

At eight weeks old, puppies get assigned across three partner prisons—the California Men's Colony in SLO, the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, and Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga. There, the dogs spend the next two years' worth of weekdays training with a handler team of inmates before they graduate as service dogs for the public.

"It does reduce recidivism. If inmates are on parole, there's less chance of reoffending. There's a better relationship between the correctional officers and the inmates, there's less problems on the yard," Tate said. "When I say there are a lot of lives we're saving, it's not just the recipients; we are changing lives for the incarcerated people, too."

After lengthy training sessions, the dogs get to apply their training in the outside world with the help of "puppy parents" over the weekends. Volunteers bring potential service dogs into their homes to not only introduce them to different "real world" scenarios like providing support while at a restaurant or grocery store, but the animals also get to unwind. School librarian Nicole Harbour-Ramos is one such puppy parent.

Becoming a service dog is a highly selective process because of the sheer discipline required from both animal and trainers. Armed with a certificate in Animals and Human Health through the University of Denver's Graduate School of Social Work, Harbour-Ramos is a stickler for the rules as she continues to occasionally look after canines Penny and Faith, along with her own pet dogs.

"Penny has to walk by herself. If we go on an outing we have to make sure she's well-groomed. We make sure she goes to the bathroom before we walk into a store," she said.

Sometimes, though, she takes Penny and Faith for "sniffy walks" where they can fully enjoy themselves.

"They also need time to be a dog, because being a service dog is very stressful," Harbour-Ramos said.

Fast fact

• Local nonprofit One Cool Earth increased its tally of school gardens in SLO County to five thanks to a partnership with Paso Robles Joint Unified and Atascadero Unified school districts. The organization unveiled a new Outdoor Learning garden at Winifred Pifer Elementary School on Jan. 14. Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at brajagopal@newtimesslo.com.

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