K-9 Companions for Veterans

By Beacon Staff

David Riggs was 17 years old when a bullet nicked his spinal cord and paralyzed him from the chest down. Confined to a wheelchair, the young man underwent physical therapy and battled through 18 months of recovery. It was during this period of grief and struggle when Riggs met Fax, a young Labrador from a strong bloodline of trained retrievers. Fax’s skills and steadfast companionship turned out to be a “lifesaving” alternative method of recovery.

Today Riggs, 45, is back on his feet and one of Fax’s offspring, Rocky, is always by his side. Riggs now trains service dogs like Rocky for children with autism and, most recently, veterans. Using his personal story as an example, Riggs emphasizes the various helpful qualities that man’s best friend has to offer, like picking up an object, leading someone in a wheelchair or providing companionship and security.

“I’ve been spending the past three years traveling the United States meeting with veterans and talking about the benefits,” he said. “You’ll hear it over and over: They’re able to make a connection with these dogs that, in some cases, they’re not yet able to make with their direct family.”

Hoping to expand the availability of service dogs, Riggs and a volunteer committee chaired by Garth Boksich from National Parks Realty have organized a charity golf tournament at Meadow Lake Resort in Columbia Falls on Aug. 18. The scramble is the main fundraiser supporting Riggs’ nonprofit organization, K9 Care Montana. Tournament prizes include a trip to Mazatlan, Mexico, and a $5,000 putting contest as well as pin prizes. All types of sponsorships are available, including holes, teams and players. Donations to the organization are accepted as well.

Proceeds from the event will directly support service dogs for three veterans in the Wounded Warriors Project and Project Healing Waters. Two of the veterans are from Washington and one is from Helena.

“Without sounding so blunt, I think this really is a lifesaving program,” Riggs said. “These dogs provide (veterans) a sense of security and emotional support. It also helps give them the ability to build confidence and re-acclimate into our society and communities, and just help that person live a more independent life. Lord knows we have a lot of veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan that need our help.”

Riggs has been training service dogs at a ranch near Philipsburg for 10 years. Originally he focused on training animals that could help people with special needs, like children with autism. With autism, socializing can be difficult, but service dogs have proven to be trusted partners.

“These dogs love people and they love children,” Riggs said.

On April 10, 2007, Philipsburg native Kyle Bohrnsen was killed in Baghdad during the Iraq War. Riggs remembers hearing the tragic news. It inspired him to act.

“That really kicked in the idea of wanting to give back to our veterans and to try to help,” he said.

In 2009 he founded K9 Care and began incorporating aspects into his training that could specifically help veterans. For example, one of the commands he teaches is called “Watch Your Six.” The dog will actually sit at the heels of a veteran and watch his back. It may simply seem like a symbolic gesture, but for veterans struggling with posttraumatic stress it can provide a calming sense of security.

“Put everything together, (K9 Care) is just a very beneficial program,” Riggs said.

Registration for the K9 Care Montana Charity Golf Tournament is open and will be available on the day of the tournament beginning at 6:30 a.m. For more information about sponsorship, call David Riggs at 406-560-2230 or email him at [email protected]. Or contact Garth Boksich with National Parks Realty at 406-212-0263 or by email at [email protected].

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