Animal shelters across the country are full of wonderful animals in need of homes. There’s also increased awareness of the health and social problems some veterans experience when they return home from military service and become acclimatized to civilian life.
So, what do you do when you have an abundance of worthy animals and a dearth of support for veterans? If you’re Christopher Baity, founder and executive director of Virginia-based nonprofit Semper K9 Assistance Dogs, you decide to meet two groups’ needs with one effort: Semper K9 trains homeless shelter dogs as service dogs for wounded service members. And better yet, the organization provides wounded veterans with trained assistance dogs free of charge.
Dogs have always been an integral part of Baity’s everyday life. His parents bred Golden Retrievers and Labradors, so there were always dogs around him. Baity remembers having a natural aptitude for dog training and handling. “I’ve always loved animals, especially dogs,” he says, “and I loved working with them. But I didn’t consider that as a job prospect. I actually almost went to college to study veterinary medicine.”
It wasn’t until he enlisted in the Marine Corps that he realized working with dogs was a viable career option. “We went to Quantico to see the dog teams,” Baity recalls over the enthusiastic barking in the background. “You had to be 18 to volunteer to assist, to catch a working dog,” he says, laughing. “And I was one of like three who were old enough, so I volunteered to put on the big suit and get bitten by the big dog. The instant I put that suit on, I knew that was it. I thought working with animals was cool, but it was then that I saw that you could do really cool things with dogs, like train them to make a real difference in the world and in people’s lives. I’d trained them before for my parents, but that had just been things like sitting still or some little trick. I realized you could really make a career out of something I’d always thought of until then as a hobby.”
Throughout his military service (which includes deployments in Japan, Iraq, and Afghanistan), Baity worked as a trainer and handler for drug- and bomb-detecting dogs. When he returned in 2009, he worked as a civilian contractor before training and handling rescue dogs for bedbug detection. But just as dogs were a constant, so too were his fellow service members. “You have friends, it’s your community,” he says of his military service. “When I left, people would ask me if I missed the Marine Corps. I generally say I don’t miss the Marine Corps, I miss Marines. And I knew there were a lot of us that really struggled after coming home.”
Official statistics support what Baity already knows. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than half of the country’s 21.2 million veterans were employed in 2014. Likewise, veterans are twice as likely as the average American to be chronically homeless, and their substance abuse and rates of mental illnesses are significantly higher than the civilian population’s. Most tragically, a U.S. veteran commits suicide every 63 minutes.
When some Marine Corps friends offered him the chance to create a pilot program that specifically trained rescue dogs to be service dogs, Baity jumped at the chance. Once he got involved, he knew he’d found his purpose. With the plan to meet wounded veterans’ needs for service dogs and to take dogs “from shelter to service,” he launched Semper K9 in 2014.
Training dogs to be service dogs is arduous but rewarding work with virtually no down time. Since 2014, he’s placed six of his 14 dogs, and because neither the demand for assistance dogs nor the number of prospective dogs is dwindling, Baity has no plans for slowing down or stopping. Semper K9 constantly trains the dogs in their care while looking for more. As the 2016 winner of the Red Bandana award, he plans to use the $10,000 donation from the award to train another dog.
“My favorite part of my job is the end, the placement. When you place a dog with a veteran and you see their bond, it’s just incredible,” says Baity. “You work with them for so long, and when you finally give a dog away and know it will benefit someone’s quality of life, it’s so rewarding.”
While he celebrates the veterans and dogs he helps, Baity also recognizes his own good fortune. “It’s perfect for me,” he says. “It’s the perfect blend of my two favorite passions: teaching and dogs. I get to play with dogs all day. And I get to teach people how to play with dogs all day. It’s the best job in world.”