NATHAN HAVENNER – Contributor
While Jason Johnson spent decades as a K-9 handler and trainer at some of the highest levels in the United States Government, in 2016 he began to think about what happens to those highly trained dogs when they reach retirement age and can no longer serve their country. Later that year, the Michigan native founded the nonprofit Project K-9 Hero to do something about it.
“Up until that point in my career, 2016, I just focused on training dogs, working dogs, but I didn’t really think about what happened to them in retirement,” he said from the Project K-9 facility in Marion County, Tennessee.
Managing a program of more than 1,000 working dogs, Johnson said when K-9 handlers would come to him to say their dog could no longer work and he would retire them, signing them over to their handler and release the dog from the responsibility of the government, including the responsibility for medical care.
“As a former handler, trainer, soldier and police officer, all the things I have done, a federal employee…I really didn’t feel it was right that we use them to the point that we can’t use them anymore and then we put that all on somebody else.”
Johnson said the first responders and military members that are able to keep their K-9 after its service to the nation concludes, can be faced with significant medical bills.
“They don’t necessarily have the money it takes to pay for these types of bills,” he said.
With $500 from his own pocket, Coleman launched Project K-9 Hero in 2016. Since that time the nonprofit has set up shop at a 177-acre secure facility in rural Marion County and provided millions of dollars in medical care for retired military working dogs and police K-9s.
According to the nonprofit’s statistics, Project K-9 Hero raised $4.4 million in gross donations across all platforms in 2022, an increase of $600,000 over the previous year. With a main focus on medical care, food, rehabilitation, rehoming and end of duty services, 88% of those donations are utilized for those causes.
Johnson said Project K-9 Hero has received a 100% four star rating with Charity Navigator.
“We work really hard to get that,” he said. “We have a 100% score, only one tenth of 1% of charities have 100% score and we are one of them.”
Johnson said that while many people have seen K-9s in communities throughout the country, and understand that these dogs risk their lives to protect the public, he would like for more people to know that there is nothing in place for these dogs through the military or federal government to provide any care for them following their retirement.
“Whoever adopts them, that is totally on them,” Johnson said. “We have dogs in the program that were shot in the line of duty and things. While that department may take care of them for that initial surgery, those long effects that they can have for years could last forever.”
Other health problems could very well be the result of the service the dog provided to its country, he said.
“While I am not a scientist or a doctor I think logic would tell you that they are exposing their body to harm by doing their job,” Johnson said. “I think it is an important job and I think they save American lives but I also feel that they deserve to be taken care of.”
Johnson said that when he was looking for a permanent home for Project K-9 Hero he had some boxes that had to be checked.
“I wanted to be centrally located, I wanted a state that really thought well of police and military, which Tennessee did that,” he said. “We ended up here in Marion County because we have 177 acres that we purchased at 2,500 per acre. If you look at the beauty of this land and you have the walking trails. You are not really going to find 177 acres at the price we did in most states.”
Johnson said he is still trying to grow Project K-9 Hero, and is in the process of building a new rehabilitation and rehoming facility that he says once it is completed, will be the nicest of its kind in the country.
“We are really looking for corporate partners and sponsorships,” he said. “People want to help a dog, we really need a corporate partners who wants to put their name on the building and we have been seeking some government funding as well. I think to find a partner who wants to put their name on it is probably our best bet.”
Johnson said there are plans for a $5-8 million facility that would not only bring jobs to the community, but also be a home for some of the nation’s most respected and trusted police and military K-9s.
While Project K-9 Hero does receive requests for volunteers and adoptions, Johnson said it is difficult to allow volunteers onsite and there is a limited number of people that have the skillset needed to take care of a retired K-9.
“I can tell you we have about 1,000 adoption applications and only about 1% of people are actually qualified to adopt one of our dogs,” Johnson said. “It is a situation where first you need some experience with a working dog. You don’t necessarily have to be a handler but you need to know the breed and the drive and how to manage them and not everyone knows how to do that.”
Many of the dogs do not get along with other animals or children he said, and require a large secure area for exercise, he said.
To date, Project K-9 Hero has accepted 241 dogs into its program and is committed to adding 52 to its program each year.
Johnson said the best way someone can help Project K-9 Hero make a difference is by making a donation or purchasing an item from its online store at www.projectk9hero.org.