SAN DIEGO —
This story marks the start to a series on the months-long process for one local shelter dog starting a new chapter as he becomes a service dog for local veterans. News 8’s Steve Price is following the dog’s journey from start to finish in the series we call “Dog Tags.”
RELATED: News 8 Dog Tags
Buddy was living in a local shelter just a couple weeks ago but Monday he began training to help save a service member's life.
"We're losing an average of 20 veterans a day to suicide,” said Graham Bloem.
As a professional dog trainer, Graham said he noticed something. Veterans returning from deployment had a totally different, more positive attitude when they were around dogs.
So, Graham co-founded Shelter to Soldier. The nonprofit program rescues dogs from shelters, pairs them with veterans in need, and then gives them both the training to succeed.
"We have a couple graduates that said: ‘I wouldn't be here today without my dog,’ ‘Consider me a life saved,’ ‘My wife has her husband back,’ ‘My children have their father back,’” said Graham. “We've had graduates that didn't leave the house for months and now they're coaching their kid’s little league soccer.”
Graham recently found Buddy at the El Cajon Shelter. Usually veterans ask for bigger dogs because they add a sense of security but recently someone requested a smaller dog and Buddy immediately seemed like the perfect choice.
"At this time, he's showing everything we want: confidence, desire to work, strong affection,” said Graham.
Shelter to Soldier works with new animals for about 90 days to make sure they're a good fit and - as Graham puts it - some of them will have to make a career change.
Fortunately, so far, Buddy seems to be on the right track.
"He's got this playful puppy-ness about him, but he's also got this really sweet maturity about him for being so young as well,” said Graham.
Dogs who make the cut for Shelter to Soldier then spend about 6 months building a higher level of obedience, learn how to maintain focus and attention when there are distractions, and if all goes well, they will then meet multiple applicants with the Shelter to Soldier staff looking for that perfect match.
"Dogs can change lives - we see it every day,” said Graham.
To learn more about Shelter to Soldier or to donate to their program, click here. It costs about $15,000 to train each dog.