K-9s for Veterans

German shepherds are retrained to serve as comfort animals for war veterans with PTSD at a K-9 training center in Tupelo.

Written by Sarah Hooper | Photographed by Joe Worthem

There is something undeniably special about our relationship with dogs. Studies have shown they lower our blood pressure, make us happier by reducing anxiety and depression, and even make us safer.

Mary Ann Shaffer said she had always liked dogs but was never really a dog person until Buddy, her first German shepherd.

“Before I got Buddy, I never had a dog in the house,” Mary Ann said, laughing. “I just lost my mind. He was so easy to love.”

When Mary Ann and her husband, Steve Shaffer, got Buddy in 2012, they couldn’t have possibly known the path down which he would lead them. Eventually, one dog turned into six German shepherds, and the Shaffers developed a deep love for the breed.

Mary Ann, a 24-hour flight nurse, and Steve, a firefighter, are real-life heroes, first responders on the front lines. So, it comes as no surprise that when you take these two amazing people and add some pretty incredible animals, the result is, well … it’s changing lives.

As a captain with the Tupelo Fire Department, Steve was already involved with law enforcement and well-acquainted with the K-9 unit. Because of Buddy, his interest in the K-9 unit grew. So he got involved and started asking more questions of colleagues.

“A lot of people think it’s the easiest job in the department, but this is the hardest job in the department,” Steve said. “If that department only has one dog, they are gonna call them 24/7.”

In 2017, an opportunity arose, and Steve and Mary Ann turned their love for the breed into a full-time second career when they purchased the K-9 Training Center in Tupelo from its original owner. Gary Dodds founded the K-9 academy and has worked with law enforcement agencies in the area for years providing dogs and training. He trained Steve and Steve’s first police dog, Ricco.

With Dodds’ help, Steve became certified as a handler and then as a trainer. To date, eight dogs the Shaffers have trained or helped train are working in law enforcement. One of their dogs, Gunner, works with Officer B.J. Gladney in Okolona. The two recently came in second place in the state law enforcement association competition.

It’s not only these accomplishments that are drawing the attention of people in the area. A little over a year ago, a friend told Mary Ann and Steve about an organization called 2 Vets On a Mission. One of the co-founders of 2VetsOAM is Paul Gregg, a Gulf War veteran who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He is literally on a mission to save lives by reaching out to other veterans who struggle with PTSD, depression and other chronic conditions.

Once the Shaffers heard Gregg’s story and realized he would be a good candidate for a comfort dog, they started putting the word out, and in short order, Quincy, a 1-year-old German shepherd was donated by a family that believed Quincy had outgrown their home. The Shaffers were happy to take him.

Gregg came to Tupelo for a week, working with the staff at K-9 and bonding with Quincy.

“You could not have factory-made a better fit,” Steve said.

Steve said Quincy sensed an arising anxiety attack the second night Gregg was in Tupelo and was able to help provide relief before it even began.

Gregg recalled the day he got a phone call from the Shaffers.

“I’ll never forget,” Gregg said. “We were on a semi-working family vacation when Steve called, and it brought me to tears.”

Gregg and Quincy just celebrated their first year together in August.

“He is always two steps ahead of me, waiting on me in the truck,” Gregg said.

He said with Quincy, he is better able to manage his PTSD. He said it is particularly helpful in situations that used to be especially problematic, like in crowds or even in restaurants. Quincy adds a different level of security.

“I know he’s got my back,” Gregg said. “I’m at peace. I’m looking one way, and he’s looking the other. It’s magical.”

A Way to Say Thanks

In just over a year, Steve and Mary Ann have donated five comfort dogs, all German shepherds, to veterans suffering from PTSD, and there was no cost to any of the recipients.

Ranger was adopted from an elderly couple unable to continue caring for him. Steve said he was in tough, muddy conditions when they picked him up. He went to Rob, a former fighter pilot for the Navy. Max went to Octavia, a marine. Daisy and Smokey are also with brave veterans.

In their own lives, with the stress of their vocations, the Shaffers know firsthand the healing power a dog can have.

“If she’s had a bad night flying and can go home and get in the bed with her dogs, she can sleep like a little girl,” Steve said. For someone who has PTSD, a service or comfort dog can be life-changing.

“Neither one of us was in the military,” Steve said. “This was our little way of saying thanks.”

Gregg said the Shaffers embody a spirit of compassion and gratitude. He said acts of kindness like theirs are what keep him going, focused on a mission to save lives.

“It’s just beyond words what those two are doing,” Gregg said. “Unbelievable. Amazing.”

And the Shaffers show no signs of slowing down. They continue to work with Gregg and 2VetsOAM to help identify those who might benefit most from this gift. The Shaffers plan to announce another recipient next month with Gregg and 2VetsOAM.

And Buddy, that first German shepherd, was the inspiration for all of this.

“He’s the reason why we do this,” Mary Ann said.

Sadly, the Shaffers said goodbye to Buddy after their beloved pet’s sudden illness last summer. Though heartbreaking for the Shaffers, Buddy’s memory will live on in what they do and the lives they touch. The night Buddy died, one of the Shaffers’ dogs gave birth to a litter of Belgian Malinois puppies — bittersweet timing and a reminder there is always the opportunity for good.

Oxford, Mississippi | United States

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