Warriors Heart helps save veterans’ lives through K9 training

The end goal is not only to provide a service but to save a life.

BANDERA – From rounding up sheep and cattle, to search and rescue missions, K9 officers have taken on a number of roles throughout their careers.

The most significant role though is serving as a best friend for those who need their utmost support -- military veterans who are battling post-traumatic stress.

These K9 officers are making all the difference in Bandera at Warriors Heart ranch.

“These dogs are helping reduce the risk of suicide in our veterans and that’s a pretty big purpose that I feel like they probably understand,” said Michelle Axmaker, K9 manager at Warriors Heart.

Axmaker says once a dog gets past basic obedience skills, the dog advances to a more specific extensive service-dog training.

“We’re going to spend 120 hours per behavior. A behavior we might train them to do is to mitigate anxiety,” said Axmaker.

The dog is trained to repeatedly touch their handler until they stop the knee bounce associated with nervousness or intense feelings and the anxiety drops.

Another skill the K9 can learn is how to assist with easing nightmares—something Axmaker says her dog Otis has helped her with.

“It became very intrusive in my life. I was taking a lot of medications, going to therapy, working with EMDR and it wasn’t helping those nightmares to go away,” said Axmaker.

Otis, Axmaker’ s companion, friend and service dog, went through the training and was put to work.

“His job is very important. When I start to vocalize in my sleep, he’ll put a paw in my face, give me kisses on my face and of course that’s going to wake me up,” said Axmaker.

The affection these dogs show even helps reduce the veteran’s dependency on prescription drugs.

“One hundred percent of our clients have been able to reduce meds for their patients, for their sleeping disorder, depression, anxiety because of the dog,” said Axmaker.

Veterans at Warriors Heart can apply to the K9 academy to train their K9 to their specific PTS disability or they can learn to be a dog trainer. Axmaker says either program has proven to be a game changer in the lives of veterans learning to cope with PTSD.

The dogs come to Warriors Heart from shelters, rescues, and public donations. Out of a hundred dogs, at least two make the cut. The end goal is not only to provide a service but to save a life.

Warriors Heart offers addiction, chemical dependency, and PTSD treatment for active and military veterans and first responders. For more information on this program, visit warriorsheart.com or call the Warriors Heart 24-hour Hotline at 844-448-2567.

About the Authors:

Jonathan Cotto is a reporter for KSAT’s Good Morning San Antonio. He’s a bilingual award-winning news reporter and he joined KSAT in 2021. Before coming to San Antonio, Cotto was reporting along the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas. He’s a veteran of the United States Navy.