With her soft dark coat and jet-black eyes, Boo-Boo, a German Shepard Lab mix, revels in giving sloppy kisses to her owner, Leatisha Steele. A scratch around Boo-Boo’s ears and the front of her chest instantly puts Leatisha at ease. These simple loving moments and unshakable bond have given Leatisha, a U.S. Navy veteran, the strength and courage to change the trajectory of her life.
“She definitely brought me out of my dark hole. She’s given me direction,” said Leatisha Steele.
While serving in the Navy, Leatisha experienced depression, anxiety, and PTSD. She medically retired from the Navy in 2012. Making the transition to civilian life was much more complex than she could have ever imagined.
“It was discouraging in many ways,” said Leatisha.
Last summer, Leatisha could feel the anxiety and depression setting deeper into her soul, and her counselor recommended she reach out to Paws 4 Vets, new non-profit connecting veterans with dogs for emotional and physical support.
“I’m not sure what Nate and Kristen with Paws 4 Vets saw in me, but they helped me find purpose in my heart and soul again,” said Leatisha.
Nathan Botts and Kristen Henrikson started Paws 4 Vets in 2020. The 8-week training program is part dog behavior-boot-camp and counseling for veterans. Veterans learn to speak dog language, and in turn, an incredible bond develops.
“It’s heartwarming. The whole reason why we’re doing this is to help people heal their hearts and better their life one day at a time,” said Nathan
Nathan knows first-hand the healing power of having man’s best friend by your side. Nathan served 22 years in the Army, including four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was hit with 13 improvised explosive devices. When he retired, he found hope in the love of a sweet chocolate lab puppy he named Angel.
“Angel literally changed my life. The first few years after I left the Army, I didn’t have any direction. It was a real struggle,” said Nathan.
That special bond led to Nathan starting his own dog training business and then Paws 4 Vets with Kristen. Their program uses various training methods and enlists the help of licensed counselors for the therapy portion of the 8-week-course. Nathan and Kristen often use the motto, 15 seconds of courage, to motivate veterans to push through uncomfortable and challenging tasks. The training also hones in on a dog’s natural ability to read body language and emotions.
“How special for a vet who can’t share their emotions outward. A dog can read that and help them either physically or emotionally. Dogs can sense that in way humans aren’t always able to do,” said Kristen.
When the course is over, vets have the option to further their training and have their dog become service dogs. They’ve graduated two classes so far and look forward to making a difference in the lives of more veterans, like Leatisha.
“Nate and Kristen have put their whole heart and souls into this program to give not only dogs a chance but veterans who need a chance, too. I don’t feel like a robot anymore, just trying to survive. I’m living,” said Leatisha.