“She was always so in tune with me. It was unreal.”
Michael Tellerino describes Gretta with a fondness that’s hard to replicate. Today, Michael is the CEO & Founder of K9s for Veterans, an organization dedicated to helping U.S. military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) transition back to civilian life with the help of trained service dogs. Gretta was Michael’s first direct experience with such an animal, having adopted her to help manage his own PTSD after returning from service.
“Everything a service dog could be – she was it,” Michael says, “Even if she was across the room, she could sense my own anxiety and come sit with me, lay on my lap, anything to draw my attention back to her. Every single time.”
After being diagnosed with kidney disease, Gretta died suddenly at the age of five. Michael was devastated. But, if there’s one thing Gretta showed him with certainty, it’s that dogs have a remarkable gift. One that quite literally save lives.
K9s for Veterans is the embodiment of the question: “Who saved who?”
Michael & his team rescue dogs from kill shelters, match them with a veteran applicant suffering from PTSD, and train them together to create bonds that last a lifetime. And, because PTSD is a layered, complicated issue to address, the dogs are trained to help tackle every piece of it.
Sometimes that anxiety rears its head in everyday experiences like walking into a room and wanting to be alone, isolated, and as out-of-sight as possible. Sometimes it’s struggling with everyday social interactions.
Sometimes, like in veteran Ernie’s case, it’s not leaving the house altogether. About 18 months after returning home from deployment, Ernie’s PTSD had taken hold. After joining the K9s for Veterans program, being matched with a good boy named Preston, his life was never the same again. Ernie started attending K9s for Veterans fundraiser events. He showed up to regular training sessions and made new friends. Ernie was even first to recognize the transformation, in words that Michael won’t soon forget.
“He said, ‘I can’t believe I’m the same person I was 3 months ago. I was ready to give up. Now, I have Preston and I have a purpose again,’” Michael remembers.
Just days ago, Michael received a call from the wife of a veteran in the program, overflowing with gratitude. “We got our husband back,” she told him, “the kids got their father back. And, it wouldn’t have been possible without the dog.”
“That call is exactly why we do what we do,” Michael says, “it doesn’t get better than that.”
Through a careful training program, the service dogs that enter K9s for Veterans learn a variety of techniques to help love, uplift, and even protect their human companions. None perhaps are more vital than their sleep training. The program’s service dogs learn to recognize signs of night terrors during sleep, including smelling stress-induced scents, allowing the dogs to wake their human before the trouble actually begins. The impact is priceless.
“So many veterans don’t want to sleep at night because the episodes can get so bad, which affects their entire life. The gift these dogs give our veterans is unbelievable,” Michael says.
Most PTSD treatments rightfully focus on distancing veterans as far from traumatic experiences as possible. The goal is to shift their attention from their experiences while serving to their current life at home. Whether it’s helping to break through social anxiety or preventing dangerous anxiety attacks, the service dogs within K9s for Veterans are extraordinarily effective at doing exactly that.
But what makes their relationship with veterans so special is something a bit different. Because it’s not always about creating distance between their life today and their life in the military. In some ways, it’s actually in bringing them closer to it. It’s about replacing a void that’s missing after they return.
“In the military, we have what we call Battle Buddies,” Michael says, “It’s someone who’s always got your back, who’s always going to look out for you, who won’t let you get hurt. When we get home, we don’t always have that anymore. We lack that closeness and can feel out of place.”
Service dogs give veterans a battle buddy again. Because who better to help restore that sense of trust, companionship, and unconditional love than the four-legged creatures that do it better than any other.
“They don’t care what you look like, what you’re dressed like, or how much money you have in your pocket. They just love you. They were absolutely made for this,” Michael says. The bonds may start in pairs, but with each new match made, the program helps fill another void that veterans often experience: a sense of brotherhood.
“Once they meet other vets in their same situation, it feels like a band of brothers, like we’re all a part of the same family,” Michael says. Dogs in hand, groups will gather regularly at their training facility for movie nights, complete with pizza and beer. Their families become friends. Friends become family, and everyone’s pack grows a little stronger.
Speaking of growing packs, Michael is delighted that his just got a little bigger. “I could never replace my Gretta,” Michael says. But after one look at a floppy-eared, 4-month-old German Shepherd puppy being cared for by a local adoption partner, he knew he was looking at his new battle buddy. In honor of his fellow veterans and the country they serve, her name came to him quickly: Liberty.
A great name for something worth loving and protecting. Which is exactly the same mentality Michael brings to his work every day. He knows battling PTSD is a fight. But, it’s one very much worth fighting.
“These dogs are never going to cure PTSD, but they make it truly livable. And doable. We want no veteran to feel like they’re alone.”
To help K9s for Veterans continue to change the lives of veterans and dogs in need, visit their website to donate today. At Mutt Jackson, we’re also thrilled that K9s for Veterans is our charity partner for July, with 10% of all proceeds from the events that we’re co-hosting at our Montrose Dog Beach location with Real Dog Moms of Chicago going to help K9s for Veterans accomplish their mission.
The story of Michael, Gretta, Liberty, & K9s for Veterans is part of Mutt Jackson’s THE JUST LOVE PROJECT – our blog series dedicated to celebrating the extraordinary bonds that exist between humans & their dogs. Every Wednesday, we’ll be sharing a new piece – be sure to subscribe to our newsletter so that you don’t miss an installment! And, if you or someone you know think you have a tale to tell, please shoot us an email at ILuvMutts@MuttJackson.com – we’d love to hear from you!