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Trained Service Dogs Help Support Veterans – and Vice Versa

NONPROFITS: Shelter to Solder Partners Working Dogs, Former Soldiers

“Saving Lives Two at a Time” is more than a motto for Shelter to Soldier, it’s what the local nonprofit does.

The Oceanside-based group has been around since November 2012 connecting specially trained dogs rescued from animal shelters with post-9/11 combat veterans working through post-traumatic stress issues, brain injuries and other injuries associated with military service experiences that were traumatic.

Graham Bloem
CEO and co-founder
Shelter to Solder

To date, Shelter to Soldier has paired 70 Emotional Support Animals and Service Dog Teams. The group has 24 dogs in for training currently, 10 matched teams going through the program and a goal of graduating 15 ESA and SDT in 2023, says Shelter to Soldier Co-founder and President Graham Bloem.

“Shelter to Soldier is 11 years young this year and was born out of the passion and desire to help soldiers and shelter dogs,” he said. “It was born out of my passion for animals and what I do as a trainer.”

Bloem graduated with honors in 2002 as an Animal Behavior College Certified Dog Trainer and held several positions through the years related to that degree, with a concentration on training dogs, including working as a trainer at Helen Woodward Animal Center’s adoption facility, with his own initial venture called West Coast K9 and at the Rancho Coastal Humane Society.

He was also general manager and senior dog trainer at Snug Pet Resort & Veterinary Hospital before founding his current business in 2012, Specialty Dog Training, and soon thereafter founded Shelter to Soldier.

Bloem said he started the nonprofit venture with his wife, Kyrié Bloem, and their friend Krys Holc, a certified public accountant and business consultant.

The trio learned of sobering statistics that every day, 20 U.S. veterans and one active-duty service member are lost to suicide. Graham Bloem said post-traumatic stress disorder “is a major problem for our men and women in uniform, and its effects last far and beyond the battlefield.”

Additionally, Bloem said that 7.6 million animals enter shelters in the U.S annually, and more than half of those animals – about 3.9 million – are dogs. He said that this year alone, 1.2 million dogs will be euthanized due to space, behavioral problems or medical complications.

Shelter to Soldier has among its 14 employees a group of professional dog trainers, experts in behavior modification, who in most cases are able to tweak those unwanted behaviors and continue to train the dogs at the elite level of service work needed for their new jobs as psychological support to their veteran handlers.

The cost from start to finish of training a dog over the course of up to two years is about $18,000 and to provide the dogs free of charge to veterans, Shelter to Soldier counts on individual donors, corporate partners including Cox Communications, Subaru USA and Carlsbad-based UNITE hair care, as well as fundraising events that include a golf tournament called “Saving Lives One Swing at a Time” – to be held on April 23 at Singing Hills Golf Resort at Sycuan – and a fundraising gala in August.

In choosing the best dogs to be trained for partnering with vets in need, Bloem and his staff partner with several rescue organizations who work together to consider and evaluate individual dogs for training. After an initial 3- to 5-month evaluation, training takes 18 to 24 months. Dogs in the program are typically between 10 months to 2 years of age to start and their adult weight will range from 40 to 70 lbs.

Bloem said he had seen many different organizations training service animals for people with different disabilities and challenges, but that he wanted to help in particular those in the military.

He also recounted a story about one of his close friends whom he lost to suicide.

“It was one of those things that rock you,” Bloem said. “I began researching and learning. You know, you see someone one day and they’re gone the next. You start thinking, ‘What could I have done?’ For me it was sadness, anger, guilt, all these different feelings. I just wanted to learn how and why and what mental health is.”

Holc understands as well. Two of her cousins, one was in the U.S. Army, the other in the Royal Air Force (United Kingdom) committed suicide.

Shelter to Soldier held a fundraiser in October 2012 at Café Coyote in Old Town and “we were shocked by the number of people that showed up,” Holc said. “We said, ‘This is bigger than we thought.’ We took in $20,000 in two months and it just kept getting bigger and bigger.”

Shelter so Soldier recently was gifted a $1 million grant from Irvine-based Wings of Freedom Foundation/Betty M. Higgins Trust to build a site that is specifically for its needs. “We have a 2- or 3-year goal and are currently seeking land, commercial property, to build our dream location where Shelter to Soldier can stand on its own four paws,” Bloem said.

Shelter to Soldier

FOUNDED: 2012
CO-FOUNDER and PRESIDENT: Graham Bloem
HEADQUARTERS: Oceanside
BUSINESS: Nonprofit
BUDGET: $1.25 million
EMPLOYEES: 14
WEBSITE: sheltertosoldier.org
CONTACT: 760-870-5338 or info@sheltertosoldier.org
NOTABLE: Shelter to Soldier accredited by the The Patriots Inititive and is Gold Seal with Candid by Guidestar.

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