More Than a Man’s Best Friend
Winter 2020 Issue Written by Brian D’Ambrosio Photography contributed by K9 Care Montana
David Riggs trains service dogs for others
Humble and polite in manner, David Riggs, 53, is grateful and content with a life dedicated to honoring and taking care of those who are worth honoring and taking care of.
David is the founder and CEO of K9 Care Montana, a nonprofit agency based outside of Livingston that breeds and trains Labrador retrievers as service dogs for wounded veterans and others.
The direction of his life changed dramatically more than 35 years ago, when he was shot by a 38-caliber bullet point-blank during a dispute at a house party. He was left with a severe spinal injury that paralyzed his body below the waist. A few years later, he was diagnosed with AVN (A-vascular necrosis), a non-fatal joint deterioration and chronic pain disease. The double thump of these life-altering events provided David with a chance to learn and grow, as well as the basis for an aspiration to help others.
As it developed, it would be a Labrador retriever named Bluegrass Bourbon Fax that helped David out of the wheelchair, standing again on his own two feet, and, in due course, into a vocation that brings him and others immeasurable healing.
“Fax was with me when I learned to walk again and he helped me to permanently stay on my feet,” David said. “I’d basically started training my first service dog while I was learning how to walk again, years before ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) even existed. … As injured as severely as I was, with a thoracic level injury, it shocked my spinal cord. I raised him as a puppy, and my recovery and his help were really the birth of the business. I reached out to Project Healing Waters and donated a dog to them, and it kind of took off from there. In 1986, two years after I was shot, I started training dogs for individuals.”
Since then, David has found his life work in the training of Labrador retrievers, a highly intelligent and naturally task-oriented breed that can be taught to carry out pedestrian tasks for their owners, such as turning on a light switch or picking up an object.
David started K9 Care Montana in 2009, and since then, he has provided breeding and training services to clients locally and nationally, rooted in an educational philosophy of “praise, positive reinforcement, and repetition.” He has certified thousands of Labs and maintained and overseen a number of high-quality kennel facilities, and has participated in a vast number of UKC field trials.
“There are lots of different ways and approaches to training a service dog and I’ve found one that would agree with everybody. I implement a program of good old-fashion hard work, repetition and routine, because that’s where your consistency comes from n dog training.”
Though David never served in the military, he has found a unique purpose in his dedication to K9 Care Montana's Wounded Warrior Service Dog program.
David’s frightening stint of partial paralysis and his subsequent recovery gave him a sense of deep empathy for people who have suffered limitations.
“I know what it’s like to experience the same things that our wounded soldiers returning from combat, who had gotten blown up or shot, have experienced,” said David, who lives with a pair of service and assistance dogs named Stormy and Griz.
“I know all of the things that are attached to being wounded,” he continued. “It’s something that most people, thankfully, couldn’t even fathom or recognize. I think it helps our clients to know that I’ve gone through it, too. And it helps in the initial relationship with many of these veterans. Honestly, I didn’t ever really feel like I fit in with society until I had this relationship with wounded veterans. For the first time in my life, I felt as if someone else understood me, and I somewhat understood them.”
David, fortified with such empathy and toughened by life experience, says that his service dogs are competently trained to help wounded soldiers to live diligently, attentively and with restored dignity. He perceives his function and responsibility as parallel to a long-term unlimited resource and the entire program as an alternative approach to mental and physical recovery.
“What I’ve realized and recognized is that these vets feel like they have been forgotten all these years down the road,” he said. “Part of our job is in letting them know that they haven’t been forgotten.”
David is flexible and astute with his dog training, and he willingly customizes a service dog to fit the needs of his clients. While the vast majority of clients come from military backgrounds, the range of people who receive service dogs includes children with autism and wounded first responders. His selection process is both caring and cautious.
“I am looking for veterans who are willing to accept help as they are beginning or are in the middle of their recovery process,” he said. “Willingness plays a big part. It requires the vet or the caregiver of a vet to show interest in this approach. I like to see that they have a strong support group, family members, the VA, or another organization that they work with.”
He is equally careful about the number of dogs he has the time and resources to successfully train, handle and relocate. At present, K9 Care Montana oversees approximately 80 active service dog projects in the state of Montana.
“I put out six or seven dogs a year, at the utmost, to ensure the best quality of service that I can give them,” he said.
There are two types of service dogs that David identifies. Psychiatric dogs are uniquely trained to mitigate the effects of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and autism. Mobility dogs, such as the ones that assist David, are specially trained to help with mobility, balance, and coordination issues, such as retrieving objects or flipping a light switch on or off.
“Mobility dogs are usually also trained to fit psychiatric needs, too,” he said. “Sometimes a dog is trained for psychiatric needs, but not necessarily for mobility. There are veterans, who, to the average eye, have no visible disability. They look and walk completely normal, but they suffer from PTSD. A dog trained to mitigate the psychiatric condition of PTSD would carry out a task that helps block people from impeding on the veteran’s personal space, or from walking up behind them, and that sort of thing. Sometimes if the client is in a wheelchair, the client might have PTSD and need a dog trained to psychiatric needs, too.”
There is a plethora of resounding testimonials available from David’s clients. Feedback that spurs him to keep working hard on behalf of those who greatly require and benefit from the services he offers. David is a part of a noble community, proud to be lending physical and spiritual support to our brothers and sisters who have been maimed or compromised. While the work is arduous, his mood is light and optimistic. He knows that they will make it, and that gives him hope for himself.
“K9 Care is trying to give wounded warriors the chance to lead and live a regular life, and all at no cost,” he said. “It’s been an interesting journey in my life. Not at all easy, but definitely rewarding. It is what I plan to dedicate the rest of my active life to.”