Spirit starts her day like any other high-energy yellow lab—running, playing, begging for attention from her owner. But once her service vest goes on, she’s all business. She sticks close to retired Navy Senior Chief Keith Dow as he makes his way around town, making deliveries for his coffee business, Crusader Coffee Company.
Spirit takes cues from Dow’s body language to determine what she needs to do. If they are in a crowded area and people are getting a little too close, Spirit can create a gap to allow her owner to move around comfortably. If she senses anxiety, she can also provide an excuse to leave a situation.
Back at home, Spirit is attentive as Dow works on his budding business and cares for his 6-year-old grandson. She reminds him when it’s time to take his medication. If Dow needs something, Spirit retrieves it. Spirit has truly become an extension of her owner—an indispensable assistant, partner and companion.
And that’s the point. Spirit was trained at Mutts with a Mission, a nonprofit in Portsmouth that pairs highly trained service dogs with veterans, first responders and law enforcement officers who have a line-of-duty disability. Mutts with a Mission is one of only a few Virginia organizations certified by Assistance Dogs International (ADI), the leading authority in the service dog industry. The dogs at Mutts with a Mission go through two years of rigorous training before graduating and officially becoming service dogs. Once certified, dogs like Spirit are ready to get to work for a veteran, wounded warrior, law enforcement officer, first responder or federal agent.
“Getting Spirit was almost like night and day for me,” Dow says. “For a while there I was really isolating a lot but having to go to her training and work with her forced me to get out and about and be sociable. It made a big difference.”
Mutts with a Mission dogs can be trained to assist their owners in a variety of ways. On the mobility side, they can be trained to retrieve dropped items, open and close doors, assist with balance, help their owner get up, open drawers and more. They are also trained to help service members with mental health disabilities, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some of these tasks include assisting during an anxiety attack, providing an excuse to leave a situation, creating space in crowds, and helping their owner decide if a situation is safe.
“Our dogs are considered durable medical equipment, which means our veterans can apply to have their dog’s medical bills paid for the duration of their service,” says Becca Kalina, Administrative Director for Mutts with a Mission. “Sometimes they can take the place of a cane or even a wheelchair. It’s amazing what they can do.”
The organization was founded in 2008 by Brooke Corson, after she witnessed the positive impact dogs had on troops returning from active service at Fort Benning. In 2011, Mutts with a Mission moved to Virginia. The organization currently has 30 active teams (a team is a hero and their dog), and each is required to recertify once a year to ensure they are meeting expectations and upholding their training requirements.
Dow got Spirit when he was still on active duty in June of 2018, when Spirit was just shy of three months old. He retired in February of 2019 after 27 years of service.
“I’d never even contemplated getting a service dog. But one day at work, my case worker asked me if I’d ever thought about one. That’s when she linked me up with Brooke and I went through the application process,” says Dow.
Dow and Spirit went through what Mutts with a Mission calls “raise to completion,” an option where the veteran attends training with the dog for the two-year program, instead of being placed with a dog who has already been trained. Dow and Spirit graduated in June 2020.
“I enjoyed the training process. We’d go to the center once or twice a week and work on a particular task. Then I would work with her at home to reinforce that skill,” says Dow. “I think training with the dog makes for a stronger bond, so I’m glad I did it that way.”
Spirit was especially helpful during the pandemic restrictions. Since they were still in training throughout the spring of 2020, Mutts with a Mission provided Dow with a place to go and a purpose that helped him get through an otherwise difficult time.
“It was really helpful to have some sense of normalcy during such a crazy time,” Dow says.
It’s not all business for Dow and Spirit. When the vest comes off, Spirit loves to do everything a regular lab does: go for walks, play fetch and swim at the beach. She also enjoys play dates with her four siblings who arrived at Mutts with a Mission with her.
Dow says he would recommend other veterans seek out a service dog through Mutts with a Mission, even if they might not have considered it before or are a little skeptical.
“It’s such a great organization, and their mission is an important one. I could talk all day about how great they are,” says Dow.
Learn more about Mutts with a Mission at MuttsWithAMission.org
CORRECTION: The above version of this story, originally published in the March-April print edition of Coastal Virginia Magazine, has been corrected to address an error. In the print version, Keith Dow was referred to as a “retired Navy officer,” which is not accurate. Dow retired as a Senior Chief from the Navy.