Beneath the cloudless blue sky of Alachua, Randy Dexter’s yellow service dog, Captain, pawed at his owner’s arms. Surrounded by Spanish moss-draped trees and brown winter grass, the duo stood in the shadow of a home.
This home wasn’t theirs or any family’s. Instead, it belongs to K9s for Warriors, a non-profit organization that pairs veterans with service dogs. The organization, located at 11317 N.W. 199th Ave., held its ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday. Dexter, a former combat medic who served in Iraq, was there as the campus director, hoping to give back to the organization that changed his life.
A group wearing khakis and sport coats sliced the white ribbon to officially inaugurate the “Gold Family Campus” at about noon. The name is courtesy of the Gold family, which donated the nine-bedroom, seven-bathroom home on a 67-acre piece of land where a class of all-female veterans will arrive in the coming months to train their new service dogs and rehabilitate.
The home features a bubbling backyard pond surrounded by towering sabal palms and an interior decorated by canvases that feature images of veterans and their service dogs.
“When you drive up, it becomes peaceful,” Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell said.
Dexter’s involvement with K9s for Warriors started in August 2014. He’d spent the last 14 months of his military career in a San Diego hospital receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. His first interaction with service dogs was when he met Ricochet, a service dog who was owned by an acquaintance.
Ricochet’s handler knew about K9s for Warriors and raised $10,000 for the organization, Dexter said, afterwards she asked them to give Dexter his own dog.
Dexter arrived in Jacksonville in August, where the organization paired him with Captain.
“He saved my life,” Dexter said.
Sheri Duval, a Jacksonville resident whose son returned from Iraq with PTSD, founded K9s for Warriors in 2011. Since then, the organization has served veterans suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries by pairing them with rescued dogs.
“We save the dog,” CEO Rory Diamond said, “and the dog saves the veteran.”
Education Coordinator Brianna Ehrhart explained why the organization, which is headquartered in Ponte Vedra Beach, decided to open a satellite campus in Alachua County. The Ponte Vedra campus acts as a dog kennel, administrative office, and a dog training ground. In the Alachua County campus, veterans will be able to live in the home for three weeks while they train with their dogs.
“We’re poising ourselves to be the standard model,” Ehrhart said, “so you know you can do this anywhere.”
Diamond noted an added bonus of the new location.
“It gets us this close to the University of Florida,” he said, “so we can pair with all the big brains over there.”
Ehrhart said that after a veteran applies to K9s for Warriors, there is a process they go through. The organization performs assessments to make sure the dog will have a good home, starting by checking whether there are other animals in the home.
Once that process is completed, Diamond said, veterans are paired with a pre-trained service dog and learn to use it in public. While training, the veterans and dogs will live in the home. They will graduate after three weeks of training.
“They will hopefully be back in the world with some hope,” he said.
The program focuses on post-9/11 veterans, like Dexter, but has helped veterans from other wars as well. Dexter credits the organization with giving him that hope Diamond spoke about.
“I lived so much of my life wanting it to end,” he said, “that now I just try to enjoy and just live it to the fullest.”