PAWS4VETS helps veterans discover healing and purpose

By Nicole Kidder-Perry, Reporter


Having completed four tours of duty over 22 years as an airborne Army Ranger, Nathan Botts has learned a few hard lessons about how to readjust to civilian life. The combat veteran, who completed his last deployment in Afghanistan in 2012, openly speaks about the depression, the aggression, and the difficulty in finding his place in a very different world when he came back home.


Botts shares that it took many years of equine and canine therapy to find the courage and strength to get through the darkest times. Now living a full life on the flip side, he has also found his purpose: Inspiring other veterans to dig deep for just “15 seconds of courage” to move themselves forward.


“Sometimes, just walking out the front door is difficult. PAWS4VETS gives them a reason, the motivation, to reach out to others and keep going,” the Nine Mile Falls resident explains while talking about the latest program sponsored by Sky Ranch K9 Training Center, a new business located in the Nine Mile Falls Outpost shopping center.


For $35, the Suncrest center offers puppy socialization classes and basic obedience training along with private lessons for advanced skills and behavior modification. Additionally, tactical K9 classes and trailing exercises teach participants how to become working police and military dogs to detect narcotics and bombs. Founded with his fiancé, Kristen Henrikson, the mission of the nonprofit arm aims to match service dogs with veterans.


Alongside his training partner, a chocolate Labrador named Angel, Botts leads small groups of veterans and their dogs through an intensive eight-week program to complete the Good Canine Citizen certification through the American Kennel Club (AKC). The course is designed to build trust between handlers and pups while laying the foundation for continuing skills training in obedience, agility, and tracking.


However, PAWS4VETS is unlike any other program in the country, the couple notes with pride. They have taken the unprecedented step of combining the basic training with group counseling sessions to “help veterans build coping mechanisms so that they are able to function correctly,” says Henrikson, whose background spans 30 years in rescue work and connecting vulnerable populations with services and tools to live their best life.


“In this setting, they see that they are not alone in going through these tough things. They build trust as a family, so that when the program is completed, they have a continued support system. This trifecta is what makes the biggest difference, and it’s really the conduit that was lacking that ultimately helped Nate heal himself,” Henrikson says. “This program helps them find that reason to continue getting up for family like they had in the military. They aren’t just cut loose to figure it out alone.”


Advancing the Benefits of Canine Therapy

The benefits of canine therapy, whether it is a service dog or emotional support animal, have recently attracted big attention. In January 2020, Congress authorized the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs to study if this type of therapy can alleviate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to improve overall quality of life. The findings prompted Congress to pass House Bill 1448, Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act (PAWS), which will provide funding and training to accredited service dog organizations.


Previously, the VA only covered the cost of service dogs for veterans with physical disabilities, such as hearing impairment, blindness, and mobility issues. The new law expands these services to assist veterans with PTSD and other mental health ailments. VA data shows a dramatic increase in cases during recent years with nearly 400,000 veterans diagnosed between 2002 and 2015. Defined as a chronic and debilitating condition, PTSD is the catalyst for an array of ailments, including depression, anger management, insomnia, substance abuse, anxiety, and dementia.


Along with giving comfort, psychiatric assistance dogs are trained to wake their partners from nightmares, provide calming reassurance during a panic attack, and perform simple tasks ranging from turning on lights to reminding their humans to take medications. Designation as a service animal means the dog has acquired the skills to perform tasks that mitigate a disability, and as a result, it is granted legal access rights in public spaces, housing, and travel.


“This recognition and support are long overdue and needed. The statistics show that 22 veterans take their lives each day, and that is 22 too many,” Henrikson says sadly. “Our hope is that it will allow vets to have more access to these types of programs and more coverage for funding.”


While PAWS4VETS will keep a close eye on how this is going to be implemented, the program has been blessed with startup support from the Combat Vet Riders Clubhouse where Botts is a member. They also recently received a grant from the Dan Kleckner Northwest Warriors for Veterans Foundation, and they plan to launch a PayPal fundraising campaign soon. As a result, the program has been offered at no cost to the participants.


“If we can help one more veteran grow stronger and braver, that’s our goal. Every win is so different. For some vets, we had to talk to them the entire drive to get them away from their safe space,” Henrikson recounts. “Just driving here was a huge win. We seek to meet each veteran exactly where they are at in their healing journey.”


Healing Hearts One Veteran, One Dog, at a Time

Participants in PAWS4VETS can enroll with their own pooch or go through the program to get paired with an appropriate dog based on the person’s physical and mental needs. The group meets weekly for three hours. Having studied the craft since 2013, Botts is a master canine trainer and behaviorist. He has expanded his skills with nine-year-old Angel to track drugs and detect humans. Together, they lead the obedience class.


Therapeutic support is offered pro bono through the Veterans Outreach Center in Spokane. Licensed counselors use talk therapy and journaling to parlay the obedience lessons from the first hour into the group session. One of the first lessons, understanding the science of a dog’s language, feelings, and learning processes, is followed by a discussion on how the veterans can become more in tune with their own feelings.


Working on communication in their daily lives is an important part of the program, Botts explains, because it is how they help heal themselves. Henrikson adds, “All veterans are taught to be strong, push through. They have to live in a very high state of awareness in a combat zone to keep themselves alive. When they come home, learning how to dial that down is very hard. Even recognizing it is hard, especially for our older vets, who were taught not to discuss these kinds of issues.”


She also praises the program for giving vets the tools to pinpoint what they are feeling and why – if they are having a flashback or anxiety attack. “This empowers them to say, ‘I know I can handle this moment, and my dog is trained to support me in this moment.’ We really dig deep with this. Most are guarded when they first come in. They are uncertain, fearful. The beauty is to see these relationships strengthen and grow both as partners and a group. Each has their own wisdom to share that gives others a different outlook.”


Since launching in 2020, two groups of 10 students have graduated from the program. A third session is currently running, and the program is now accepting applications for a new round of classes starting in January. The participants span a broad range of demographics of ages, gender, and cultures and have served from Vietnam to Afghanistan. They travel from as far away as Coeur d’Alene and Moses Lake although most live between Spokane and Tum Tum.


Through phone trees, summer barbeques, and reunions, the tight-knit group remains connected, which is the key to their continued success, Botts says. Since graduating, two veterans have even gone on to complete training through the Sky Ranch K9 Training Center to become canine handlers with their own businesses.


“It’s not a competition,” says Henrikson, adding that her and Botts “both have a strong heart for service. We can see the healing and purpose develop. We are honored to see them living their best lives. This is how we say thank you to those who have served our country.”