By Laura Drucker
Bob Sutalski is a U.S. veteran living in East Dundee, Illinois. He joined the Army Reserves in 2001 and was deployed twice to Afghanistan, once in 2004, and again in 2008.
Sutalski lives alone, save for the company of two German Shepherds, six-year-old Laky and twelve-year-old Zander. From the outside looking in, there’s nothing exceptionally notable about Sutalski and his two dogs—until you dig a little deeper.
Laky and Zander are retired law enforcement dogs, both declared unadoptable by their respective municipalities. Zander was retired from the Massachusetts State Police when he stopped apprehending, and per state rules could not be adopted out. Laky, who served with the Baltimore County Sheriff, was retired when he exhibited signs of increased aggression. After failing to pass a temperament test, he was declared unfit for adoption to the general public.
For dogs like this, options are limited, and euthanization is often their inevitable fate. Fortunately for Laky and Zander, they had someone on their side—Danny Scheuer, founder of Illinois-based Save-a-Vet, an organization that rescues unadoptable retired military and law enforcement dogs, offering them a safe and loving home to retire in.
Scheuer is a veteran of the Iraq War, where he experienced firsthand the crucial role military dogs play, and the often inefficient measures taken to ensure they have a comfortable existence when their career ends.
“When I was deployed we had a K-9 unit assigned to us,” Scheuer recalls. “One day, after saving our lives multiple times, a dog got spooked by an explosion and we found out they were going to put him down because of it. We tried to save him, and we failed.”
Scheuer retired from the military in 2006. His adjustment to civilian life has been a struggle, and he battles quite a few of the demons that so many veterans face when they come home and must learn to adapt to a life that has been irreparably changed by time and experience. The memory of that dog stayed with him though, and in 2007 he founded Save-a-Vet. Through post-combat hospitalizations and another failed attempt to rescue a working dog from Afghanistan, Scheuer persisted in his efforts. His determination paid off.
“About two years after I started the organization I got a phone call—somebody else in Afghanistan with a dog issue. We were actually able to save that dog. It just snowballed from there.”
The life of a working dog is filled with experiences that would test the resolve of even the bravest humans. Dogs are not impervious to the effects of high-stress, dangerous situations, and like people, they have been known to experience post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their work. Just as their two-legged comrades bear the emotional scars of their service, working dogs can be forever impacted by the situations they endure.
Unfortunately, there’s no real mandated process for rehabilitation. A dog who exhibits signs of intense stress (usually conveyed through aggression), or who is unable to continue doing their job, is generally retired and put through one or more tests to evaluate their adoptability. Dogs who have a history of severe bites or display signs of aggression are usually declared unadoptable and euthanized. Some dogs, like Zander, may not even be aggressive, but have simply run the course of their career and have no other options. They too face euthanasia.
For Scheuer and the Save-a-Vet volunteers, many of whom are veterans and/or friends and relatives of veterans, the black-and-white policies created for retired working dogs are disrespectful to these animals who have risked their lives for humans, only to be betrayed by them once they can no longer do their jobs. At the heart of Save-a-Vet’s mission is the belief that former working dogs deserve the same respect and honor as all military and law enforcement veterans, and they work tirelessly to make that a reality.
In a typical scenario, animals come into Save-a-Vet’s care when their handler calls Scheuer and expresses concern that their dog is going to or has already failed temperament testing and will be put down. The calls come from one of three centers in Washington state, Texas, and Washington D.C.
“We’ll always find a way to do it,” Scheuer says. “We’ll buy a one-way plane ticket last minute because you never know if you can fly the dog back or if you have to drive him, and then you don’t know how long it’s going to take.” He recalls one time when he picked up a dog from Homeland Security—a process that was supposed to take 24 hours, but instead went on for three weeks.
Once the dogs are in Save-a-Vet’s care, the process of breaking patterns of aggression begins. What makes this task so difficult is that Scheuer and his training volunteers— all of whom work professionally as handlers for military and law enforcement dogs—must decondition a dog from doing what he knows how to do best.
“Their work has been turned into a game from an early age,” Scheuer says, “so they want to play it. Whether it’s narcotics or explosives or search-and- rescue, it’s a game for them, and they enjoy the game. So when we get them, we’ve got to break what they’ve been doing for fun for the past eight years.”
The Save-a-Vet team starts with one of the most basic currencies of the human/ dog relationship: table food. The dogs haven’t had their own beds, let alone a scrap of bacon, and Scheuer makes sure they learn early on that if they behave, there are incredibly tasty rewards.
“We put them in a situation where they have to choose between their job or table food, and most of the time they go for table food. It’s rudimentary and ancient, but it works,” Scheuer says.
Once a dog is rescued by Save-a-Vet, they become a member of the organization’s family forever—they are never adopted out. Save-a-Vet doesn’t have one physical shelter where the dogs live, instead they own houses throughout Illinois and Indiana where dogs are paired up with humans, living out the rest of their lives with the toys, backyards, and doting attention they never received throughout their careers.
That’s where Sutalski comes in.
Save-a-Vet’s mission is two-fold: Aside from rescuing former working dogs, the organization hires disabled and down-on- their-luck veterans to live in their houses and take care of the dogs. In exchange, the vets are able to live in the house rent-free. Scheuer regularly drug tests the vets, and requires them to either enroll in school full-time and maintain above a B average, or work a full-time job.
Prior to moving in to the house in East Dundee, Sutalski was living in his parents’ basement after a recently finalized divorce. It was his ex-wife who connected him with Scheuer, who, for the safety of his dogs and his properties, only accepts veterans who come through trusted referrals.
“I had to fall back into place,” Sutalski says. “It’s not like you can just turn a switch on and off and go back to normal civilian life. [Scheuer] called me up and asked if I wanted to go live in a house rent- free. He said that all I had to do was take care of some dogs. I didn’t really believe him at the time—nobody gets to live in a house for free just to take care of dogs.”
Despite sounding too good to be true, Sutalski took Scheuer up on his offer, and he’s been living happily with Laky and Zander for almost two years now, working full-time and finding comfort in his routine. That’s exactly what Scheuer wants most for the vets—a smooth transition into a free life.
Most soldiers go from high school straight to the military,” Scheuer says. “Everything in their adult lives has been controlled by someone else—when they sleep, when they shower, when they eat. It’s called military bearing, and it’s one of the first things that we’re taught.” This structure inherently creates difficulties for veterans when their service is over.
“The military is saying Here’s your freedom, good luck, enjoy. But when do you sleep? When do you eat? When are you allowed to drink and not drink? When we get them we put them into that structure with a lot more leeway. I’m not telling you when you can drink, but I’m telling you that if you’re not working a job or going to school you’re not working for us.”
Scheuer says that it clicks pretty early on for the veterans that they have to learn to manage their lives appropriately or risk losing what they have. “They’ll realize, Hey, I can’t do my job if I’m hungover, and if I lose my job I’m going to lose my place to live and the dogs that I love.” This incentive keeps them on track, encouraging them to maintain a productive life.
For Sutalski, life with the dogs has become his new normal. His own past, and the pasts of Laky and Zander, rarely factor in. Sutalski doesn’t look at the dogs in his care as unadoptable or aggressive, he simply treats them like pets.
Still, he does occasionally see behaviors that remind him why Laky and Zander wouldn’t necessarily be safe members of a typical family.
“Nine-tenths of the time I am the leader of the house,” Sutalski says. “Then there are days when I come home and everything is out the window. They’ll run around, bark, do whatever they want. It takes me a little while to get them back into place, but when I do, everything is fine.”
Scheuer encourages all of the veterans in the organization to remain in the houses for as long as they need, generally until they can save up enough money to buy a house for themselves. But there’s never any pressure to move. This is good news for Sutalski, who can’t imagine living his day-to-day life without the companionship of Laky and Zander.
As Save-a-Vet comes up on their ten year anniversary, they continue to expand in big ways. There’s a property currently under construction in Indiana which will comfortably house 21 veterans and 25 dogs. And plans are in the works to acquire a Chicago property, as well. The organization relies heavily on its volunteers and supporters, who assist with everything from finding properties, to rehabbing them for handicap accessibility, to checking in on hired vets, making sure the veterans are taking good care of the dogs and the houses.
There are currently 11 veteran/dog teams living in Save-a-Vet’s homes. Scheuer’s hope for the future is continued growth—to be able to honor and care for as many disabled veterans and unadoptable former working dogs as possible. His task is big, but he has the resolve to get it done. Scheuer is committed to never again failing to save a dog who deserves it.