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Veterans' best friends saluted: Vancouver's Northwest Battle Buddies pairs heroes with service dogs

Columbian - 2/17/2024

Feb. 16—On Friday, veterans and their service dogs walked across a graduation stage and toward a new life together.

Northwest Battle Buddies hosted the graduation. The nonprofit organization pairs veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder with service dogs free of charge.

The ceremony at Royal Oaks Country Club was packed with veterans, families, community members and four-legged friends to celebrate the past few months' hard work to get to this moment.

"It's Independence Day for them," said Shannon Walker, founder of Northwest Battle Buddies.

'Their best first day'

Twelve years ago, Walker met a veteran, Kevin Williams, who changed the trajectory of her career and life.

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Walker has a few decades of experience as a dog trainer and owner of Man's Best Friend in Battle Ground. When Williams, who has PTSD, solicited her help to train his dog as a service animal for him, she heard her father's words.

"He taught me, when you're in the presence of a veteran, you're in the presence of a hero," Walker said.

So Walker did what she knew how to do: She assessed and began training Williams' dog. It wasn't until Williams asked to be trained that her life changed.

"What changed for me was when I went out to work with him and started to teach him how to handle his dog. I saw him find courage to lead her places he was afraid to go alone. And I saw him be willing to do for her what he was not even willing to do for himself," Walker said. "And to me, that was extremely profound."

When Williams and his service dog's training was complete, Walker watched as he walked away with his head held high and a newfound confidence, Walker recalled.

Soon enough, other veterans came to Walker asking for her help.

The work isn't always easy. But a dire statistic motivates Walker: Twenty-two veterans die by suicide a day, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

Studies show service dogs can help alleviate mental health concerns and suicidal ideation in veterans who have PTSD.

Walker knows that service dogs are a powerful tool. She's seen it. The program has graduated 234 veterans and their canines. Not one has died by suicide.

"I have this motto that the day before our veterans meet their service dog is their last worst day," Walker said. "And the day they meet their service dog is their best first day."

'I can do this'

The dogs are more than cute house pets.

"They are a tool that allows our veterans to live life with freedom and independence and do things they could not do without the tool," Walker said.

The dogs receive five months of training to respond to the symptoms of PTSD in veterans.

"These dogs interrupt panic attacks. They wake them up from nightmares. They provide social mobility, so they can go places they could not go without their dog," Walker said.

The veterans receive five weeks of training on how to handle the dog but also how to be their best selves.

"(Training) requires them to find the person that they lost a long time ago, and you'll hear veterans talk about that," Walker said. "They'll say, 'I didn't realize how much was taken from me until I started to find myself again with my service dog.'"

As the veterans walked across the graduation stage with their canine companions, they told the audience what the training program meant to them.

For Pete Reddig, the graduation wasn't just a stepping stone to the next part of his life but also a second chance.

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Reddig was part of a former class of veterans and their service dogs. He was paired with a black Labrador named Toby. But during the fourth week of training, he made the decision to leave the program.

"I was struggling with a lot of things and a lot of demons," he said. After leaving the program, he kept Toby's vest with him, which encouraged him to continue with his recovery.

Reddig worked hard to address his demons, going to therapy and seeing counselors until he was back on his feet. He decided to re-enroll in the program and reunite with Toby.

When he walked into the first day of training, the trainers and staff were happy to see him again, which provided him more confidence that he was ready.

"It was in that moment that I knew I can do this," Reddig said as Toby leaned against his legs.

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit


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