How Veterans and Dogs Come Together to Save Each Other as Part of This Special California Program

After pulling cats and dogs from high-kill shelters in the area, trainer Danny Kimbrell and social worker Merritt Rollins work together to figure out which of the rescued animals would be suitable to become service dogs for veterans.

Dog is man’s best friend, but that doesn’t fully capture the remarkable relationship between Brandon Grays, a 35-year-old veteran living in California, and his dog.

Standing at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, Grays is rivaled by the size of Max, a 108-pound husky-German shepherd mix. Fittingly, the 3-year-old dog’s full name is Maximus Aurelius.

“He’s a monster dog – he’s huge and I love it,” Grays told “I’ve got my big ol’ dog and I’m a big ol’ boy, and we’re going to be alright.”

They also both have similar ailments. Max has allergies and has undergone various surgeries. He continues to require physical therapy for his injuries. Grays, too, suffers from chronic injuries in his knee, back, shoulder and neck. He also deals with insomnia, memory loss and trouble concentrating due to trauma to the brain.

“He’s broke, I’m broke,” he said. “We’re two peas in a pod.”

And while Max was a rescue dog, spared from spending the rest of his life at a high-kill shelter, Grays credits his loyal companion with saving his own life. 

He returned from service in 2013 with PTSD and depression. Lonely and sad, Grays' life stretched before him like an empty road. 

"Outlook was pretty bleak," he said. "I really wasn’t going anywhere, wasn’t doing anything, was just kind of existing instead of living.

“Man, Max came along and it was an instant change,” he said.

Confident Canines

Grays and Max met thanks to the Pets and Vets program at former Major League Baseball player and manager Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) based in Walnut Creek, California.

After pulling cats and dogs from high-kill shelters in the area, trainer Danny Kimbrell and social worker Merritt Rollins work together to figure out which of the rescued animals would be suitable to become service dogs for veterans reintegrating into civilian life.

“We want them to be calm, we want them to be affiliative, meaning we want them to like people,” Rollins explained to “We want to know we can get the dog’s attention easily with food, that they’re not going to go crazy if they see a squirrel and run off, that they bounce back if there’s something unexpected that happens that they didn’t anticipate.”

To determine whether a rescue dog is suited for their program, Kimbrell and Rollins adhere to a checklist with four main requirements: look, sensitivity, tag and squeeze. The pair will go back and forth, testing things like whether the dog can hold eye contact comfortably, whether it eases into a touch or responds with aggression, whether a dog can engage in friendly play, and how it responds to a person grabbing its paw.

“Dogs are selected so that they could cause the least amount of stress on a person that already feels stressed from their day to day,” Kimbrell explained.

Rescue dogs that don’t pass the test return to the ARF facility and can be adopted through their normal program.

“We’re not looking at the type of dog, we’re not looking at the breed of dog, I’m not looking at the size,” Kimbrell emphasized. “The only thing I’m looking for is calm, confident behavior.”

Joint Journey

Maddie Gibson, who served in the Navy from 2000 to 2006 as a sonar technician, explained she has a hard time being in crowded spaces as a result of her PTSD. That’s when Lady stepped in to save the day.

“Really soon after I got her, I took her on a plane to Texas and we were in the airport, people were just flying around. [I thought,] 'This is way too close for comfort, I’m going to hit someone if this keeps happening,'” Gibson said. “She was able to do this perimeter and it was like magic. It was empowering, and I didn’t feel at the mercy of those emotions so much anymore.”

After being paired, veterans and service dogs-to-be undergo a year-long program in which veterans are taught to train their own service dogs to address their individual needs.

“The benefits are that they learn and grow with their animals, and they learn as their animals grow,” trainer Kimbrell said.

During the classes, held in ARF’s facilities, veterans and their service dogs sit around a circle while Kimbrell walks them through the day’s lesson.

Kimbrell teaches the veterans a system of positive reinforcement, in which the dog is persuaded to perform a trick using a treat. Each trick gets progressively harder, and they repeat the previous step if the dog becomes lost trying to learn a new trick.

“The process for both the handler and the dog is one of failures and victories,” Kimbrell said. “Multiple failures, multiple victories. Before you can truly succeed, you have to fail a couple of times.”  

Gibson agreed that her first step in reintegrating into society and finding her purpose as a civilian was training 5-year-old Lady.

“It’s really empowering,” she explained. “I’ve trained her. We’ve done this together with each other. This is our journey together.”

Kimbrell explained that it’s part of their approach in having both the veterans and the service dogs-to-be train together at their facility.

“They come in being two different individuals and then you just see the personal growth of both of them,” Kimbrell explained. “The dog learning the behaviors and getting through it, the personal growth of the person, getting the small achievements along the way. They both get that together, and you see them bond over time through trial and error, through mutual hardships. 

"The same way we bond in the military is how these dogs bond to their people.”

Kimbrell, who once served as a paratrooper in the 82nd airborne, explained that his philosophy of training at Pets and Vets was inspired by his own journey in training his own service dog.

“There was no program at the time to help me,” he explained. “So I started training my own dog to be my service dog and finding out what that entailed, because I didn’t want to just pay for a vest, slap it on, and say ‘That’s a service dog.’ I had to do it the right way.”

Gaining a Friend

Many veterans dealing with PTSD say they have trouble leaving home or interacting with people.

“Before I got Lady, if I was extremely depressed, sometimes I wouldn’t get out of bed,” Gibson said. “I drank a lot, and I would just kind of hole up and not go anywhere and not talk to anyone, not even over the phone. [I was] feeling alone and lost.”

But Pets and Vets requires attendance from both the handler and the dog, which gives the veterans a schedule to adhere to, if only for the benefit of their beloved service animal.

“We have a hard time with consistency, showing up for therapy appointments, staying with our therapy regimen,” Grays explained. “However, when it comes to [Max’s] surgeries and his therapy routines and what he needs, […] we’re going to do those things.”

The sessions also give them a place to interact with other veterans.

“A big thing I had that I had a lot of trouble with was not being able to identify with anyone, or feel like I had something mutually [in common] to talk about,” Kimbrell said. “When I’ve seen real-life hardships of other veterans and things of that nature, it’s just hard to relate to someone [when] the worst thing that’s happened to them today is they ran out of coffee.”

Rollins explained some veterans that enter their program hesitant to socialize and talk to others often wrap up the program with new friends, with whom they keep in contact with outside the program.

“I don’t know that there are many places where veterans returning from deployment interact with one another,” Rollins said. “They do get to know one another, then they come back and get to meet each other and hang out. We have a once-a-year re-certification for the dogs, so all the veterans come to the re-certification dinner and they socialize and their dogs hang out. All of a sudden, they’re part of a program.”    

Finding Purpose

In addition to arming himself with the skills to readjust to civilian life and gaining a faithful friend, Grays said the Pets and Vets program also taught him how to be a better parent.

“Being in the military and being an NCO (non-commissioned officer) and being in charge, negative reinforcement is how we do things,” Grays said. “But with Max, everything is positive [...] and that’s changed the way I parent.”

He explained while he used to threaten his son with punishment if he didn’t do his homework, he now rewards him with television time when he finishes his homework.

“The difference is he’s more motivated to do his work to get a reward than he is to do his work because he doesn’t want to get in trouble,” he said. “I learned that dealing with Max.”

For Gibson, interacting with Lady has brought new joy to her life.

“She’s brought purpose,” Gibson explained. “She’s re-taught me how to play and that it’s OK to feel happy in this crazy, stupid world. She’ll go jumping up on rocks and looking for critters and just seeing her happy makes her feel happy.”

With the hope of expanding the Pets and Vets program to benefit more local veterans and rescue animals, ARF has teamed up with Purina Dog Chow, which pledged to donate to the program with every bag of Dog Chow sold. Visit their website for more information.