CMO Club Cares Conversations with Shari Duval, Founder of K9s for Warriors

In a departure from our series of interviews with top CMOs, we are honored to present a special conversation with CMO Club friend and CMO Club Cares participant Shari Duval, Founder and CEO of K9s for Warriors. K9s for Warriors is a non-profit charity that trains and supplies service canines to veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress, traumatic brain injury, and military sexual trauma as a result of combat in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at no cost to the warrior.  At the time of this interview, Shari’s organization has helped over 600 veterans countrywide in facilitating recovery into society and away from alcohol, substance abuse, depression, and suicide.

CMO Club — Welcome. We’d love to get to know a little more about you and how this great organization came to be. Where did you grow up?

Shari Duval — I grew up around Cincinnati, Ohio. Although I have a brother, nine years older, I felt like I was raised as an only child. I was a tom-boy, liked hunting and fishing just like dad did. He also taught me building skills from an early age that traditionally, boys learned. It was a pretty normal childhood as I remember, small-town living, both parents there. We were raised to be good Americans.

CMO Club — Anything else your parents taught you that still resonates?

Shari Duval — I would say both parents were big on loyalty. Loyalty to your family, to your friends, to your country. To be honest and always having integrity. Mostly, I remember being taught to love being an American. I wasn’t always a perfect person, but I was always a proud American. They also taught me to work hard if you want to succeed at something. You’re the only person who can do that. Nobody’s going to do it for you. That’s the way I was raised.

CMO Club — I understand you volunteered for veteran’s charities, and that’s where you were first exposed to the personal struggles these men and women faced coming home. What was that experience like? What did you do?

Shari Duval — I’ve always worked for charitable causes, whether that was the American Cancer Society, or Christina’s Smiles, a children’s oral care charity for those who couldn’t afford a dentist. You really can’t volunteer for Wounded Warriors per se, but I would collect and sell used furniture and donate all those funds to the Wounded Warriors Project.

At some point, I noticed that they didn’t have a service dog program for returning veterans. I approached them with the idea of organizing a canine program, which was somehow rejected. My son, Brett, was a canine police officer and trainer in Cincinnati and, after the Iraq war started, volunteered to go to Iraq as a bomb dog specialist. He served two tours in that capacity, sniffing out IED’s. The first time he came home, there was a stark difference in his personality, a complete change from who he had been before. I’d been heavily involved with returning vets with mostly physical injuries and disabilities. Issues like Post-Traumatic stress weren’t really being addressed the way they needed to be.

CMO Club — Were you aware of what PTSD was at the time?

No. I wound up doing a lot of research. In my day, it was Vietnam. When they came home, they were shattered and broken, too, but then it was called shell-shock. I’d assumed he was prepared, being a police officer and witnessing the kind of things police officers see, but soon came to realize that nothing can ever prepare you for war. It was during his second tour in Iraq that I knew he was severely broken.

CMO Club — Can you tell us what he was like before he left, and what some of those changes were when he came home?

Shari Duval — It was night and day. He was a happy-go-lucky person, kind, loyal, hard-working, open, and friendly. When he came home, he had a wall all around him. He could go through the motions of talking if he had to, but it became like pulling teeth just to get to see him. He refused to leave the house. It was like someone threw a blanket over his head and he ceased to exist.

CMO Club — What was that like for you?

Shari Duval — It was horrible. No matter what I did to try to engage him, it just got worse. He started drinking, which he was not a drinker, he isolated himself more and more, withdrew completely. We’d been so very close. It was as if a whole other person came back, and my son was gone. He’s not dead, but he died in Iraq. Then he left for the second tour. He’d decided he was more comfortable there than he was here.

CMO Club — Was it much worse when he came back the second time?

Shari Duval—Yes, if that was even possible. More hardened. They see things that they never can speak about. It goes against everything you’ve ever been taught in your life. When you’re there it all seems acceptable, but when you step away from that, all those values you’ve held, there’s this inner conflict. It’s wrong, but it’s your job. How does someone resolve that fight going on inside themselves? They looked evil right in the face and then had to deal with it.

CMO Club — Was there a bottom?

Shari Duval — I think it was during his second tour and right after he came home. The drinking and the isolation was at its worst then. Had we not had this idea I think he would have killed himself. I’m sure of it. I think we were within six months of losing him.

CMO Club — So what sparked the canine connection, then?

Shari Duval — I felt it was a way to get him re-engaged with his life. I told him I was starting the program and needed his help. It was going to be dogs for warriors struggling like you are with PTSD to help save their lives, and finally, for the first time since he’d left, we could talk about it. It was as if a lightbulb went off somewhere inside him. He started to open up, helping me, giving suggestions and ideas, helping with the logo. I couldn’t afford to pay him, so he worked a job and then would come home and work with the dogs. We had no idea where we were going to get our first warrior, no idea where the money would come from, or where we would get the dogs, but I knew what I wanted to do and we made it happen.

Brett and Mom with his current dog, Lincoln

CMO Club — How many struggling veterans have you helped so far?

Shari Duval — Over 600.

CMO Club — You mention on your website that twenty veterans die by suicide in America every single day.

Shari Duval — That’s just a figure they came up with. I would say it’s substantially higher than that.

CMO Club — Of those figures, it’s estimated that most if not all of those struggling with PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury are heavily dependent on some form of medication, alcohol, drugs, or all of the above. When a veteran goes through the program and gets a dog, what happens to those numbers?

Shari Duval — Let’s just work with the 600 figure I mentioned. Of those 600 veterans in the program, we’ve only had two suicides. So that’s 598 veterans who were suicidal, every single one of them on the brink of suicide, 598 American soldiers, sons, daughters, mothers and fathers, 598 human beings starting a new life. On the medication end, I would say that 85% have reduced their medications to two or three a day from an average of fifteen, or for some, it’s reduced to none at all.

CMO Club — Amazing. Can you walk us through the procedure for a veteran struggling with PTSD for getting into the program and walking out with a canine?

Shari Duval — We don’t solicit for warriors. They usually find us. We’re pretty well known now, so they’ll usually call us first and fill out an extensive application. By the time we look at that application, do phone interviews, a criminal background check, and look at their VA medical report, we have a pretty good idea if they are right for the program. If there’s any alcohol or drug use, we require they be clean for a period of time before they are considered. We have to protect the dogs. That process takes a couple of months before they can be accepted. During that time, we stay in contact, doing wellness checks, and talking with them.

Tragically, we have about a year and a half waiting list before getting into the training program. Once they are here, they’re scheduled for classes on our campus for three weeks of training. You can’t just give someone a dog and expect then to snap out of a disability. It doesn’t work that way. You have to change the pattern of behavior and that takes training. Having a dog to take care of forces them to get back into society. During that time, they have no visitors. They can’t leave campus on their own. They’re put back in a military/civilian environment, with rules and responsibilities. They go out into society to train with a dog who has already been trained. That’s where the magic begins. We get them away from their house, away from their isolation, and we push them and the limits they’ve set for themselves. We get them around crowds, loud noises, suspicious people with knapsacks, a sight or smell, motion, anything that might trigger them to respond as if that person is a suicide bomber, an IED, whatever. We basically change the isolation into re-integration. Slowly, it becomes the new normal. We show them how to get out of the abyss with the help of their dog. That’s the magic.

CMO Club — Can we talk a little about the dogs? Where do they come from?

Shari Duval — Brett and I both came up with the idea of using shelter dogs. When you start a service dog program, any service dog program, you have to get the right animal. Only ten percent of dogs are qualified to be a working dog. You have to identify those dogs that want to work. Most agencies have their own breeding programs for the type of dog they want. We didn’t have that luxury. We didn’t have the funds to do that, and, more importantly, we needed the dogs right away. We decided to look in the shelter. That first day we came back with three dogs. Brett knew what to look for, and from that point forward, we saw no need to look any further. There are just too many amazing dogs that need a job, that were sitting in shelters. To date, we have rescued 1,146 shelter dogs.

CMO Club — Wow. So that helps twofold, the vets get great dogs, and the dogs come out of the shelters to help others. What a great idea. Do you choose the dog beforehand for the individual vet?

Shari Duval — We do. Does he or she live alone, or do they have five kids? Do they live in a condo, or do they have a yard? Are there any allergies? We screen what we think would be a good fit. Many candidates ask for specific breeds or sizes. They ask, “can I have a German Shepherd?” We sometimes say, “You’re getting a Chihuahua, and you’re going to like it.” (laughter) We’ve made very few mistakes so far.

CMO Club — What happens when a dog that means so much to a veteran, passes away?

Shari Duval — The goal is that they end up not needing a dog anymore. It’s like getting out of a wheelchair and never looking back. Most veterans do need another dog, however, so they’re put back on the list for a second dog.

CMO Club — The program seems like it requires a lot of money to keep it going. Where do most of the funds come from?

Shari Duval — 100% donated. We have an active system in place for donations. We have a lot of corporate partners which we rely on. About six years ago, we started a program where you can sponsor a dog for a veteran. For fifteen thousand dollars, you can sponsor a dog. You get to name the dog and follow the process from A to Z. That’s been a huge success. People can actually see where their money is going. The costs are tremendous.

CMO Club — What are those costs? How much money does it take for each veteran and dog from start to finish?

Shari Duval — About $30,000.00 per dog and veteran pair.

CMO Club — Wow. What do you say to a veteran who might be struggling right now with PTSD, or to someone who knows of a veteran who’s struggling quietly in isolation from the effects of service to our country so they might have hope?

Shari Duval — They’ve got to reach out. We can’t find them. Many of the warriors come to us because they have family members that suggested us, approached their husband or boyfriend, or child and helped get them to the point of applying. If there’s someone out there suffering, or having suicidal thoughts, there’s hope. A service dog is not for everyone. It’s not utopia or the only answer, but for most, it is. It brings them back. It teaches them how to live again. That’s the whole magic, teaching them how to live again.

CMO Club — What do you think it is about soldiers and dogs that touch our hearts in such a profound way?

Shari Duval — I like to think it goes back to the beginning of our conversation. The way I was raised was that you respected your military and your country. When one of our own, which could be your brother, your son, your daughter, your friend, goes over and defends our freedoms, and comes home so badly broken, when you see what a dog can do to bring them back, I don’t know anyone in their right mind who couldn’t be for that. We can’t count on the government or the VA to do that for us. They’re not doing it. It’s our responsibility.

CMO Club — What do you think of the divisions in our country right now? How do we begin to heal?

Shari Duval — I think if we can all learn to take politics out of it, which is very difficult right now, and know that if we are going to take care of anybody in this country, it should be our military. The crisis of veteran homelessness is atrocious. I’m a big believer in if you want something done, do it yourself. If we want to help our veterans, we have to get involved.

CMO Club — Has your faith played any part in what you do?

Shari Duval — No question about it. I’m not smart enough to do this on my own. This was a God thing. Call it what you want, call it God, or Jesus, or a higher power, whatever. I’ve seen miracles, dozens of pure miracles. I couldn’t create that by myself. I’ve had a helping hand the whole way.

CMO Club — What’s your connection to The CMO Club?

Shari Duval — Pete Krainik and I met years ago through a mutual friend. Shortly afterward, we started attending CMO Club events to learn as much as we could about marketing. Our first professional marketer, Sandi Capra, freelanced for the club. That’s how we met and hired her. We had an event in Orlando years ago, and Sandi asked me if I minded that she invite Pete. She had also invited a personal friend to the event, Gina. They both met that night, and Gina eventually became Pete’s wife. It’s been a wonderful love affair to watch and be a small part of. Pete now sits on our Board. We’ve been to so many of the events. We’ve picked up so much knowledge, so many great ideas and met so many nice, smart people to share our story with. Those same people sometimes go back and tell our story to their own companies. It has really helped spread the word.

CMO Club — What’s on the horizon for K9s for Warriors?

Shari Duval — We are expanding, building two new shelters, areas of intake for more dogs. We might open a second training facility at some point, but right now, we want to make sure the one we have is running perfectly.

CMO Club — I usually ask the marketers I interview how someone like themselves can change the world? It seems silly to ask you that question with all the good you do every day. If you could be remembered for just one thing when all is said and done, what would that on thing be?

Shari Duval — A good mom.