BILLINGS - A Billings-based nonprofit is pairing shelter dogs with veterans and that partnership has changed lives.
Hollie Koenigsberg's dog Zulu is much more than just a furry family member. She’s a service animal.
“Everywhere I go, she goes. She’s my partner, she’s my buddy. Just everything I do, she does,” said Koenigsberg on Tuesday.
Koenigsberg — a Lockwood resident — spent six years in the US Army, which included a year-long deployment to Iraq in 2006.
But the battle didn’t end when she returned home.
“When I came back from Iraq at the end of 2007, I had undiagnosed PTSD, and I also was going through a lot of medical situations,” Koenigsberg said.
It wasn’t until later that Koenigsberg received the psychological help she needed and it’s still an ongoing process.
“I think I was under the false impression that I was going to be free of PTSD one day, and that’s not the case, You just learn how to live victoriously with it,” said Koenigsberg.
That’s exactly what Dog Tag Buddies has helped her do.
Deede Baker got the idea for the nonprofit after her husband returned home from his own deployment to Iraq.
“What we started noticing was, when he was having really hard days, he’d come in the house, he’d sit down with the dogs and everything would just go away,” Baker said.
The organization has connected over 100 veterans with shelter dogs, giving them the resources they need to train them to become service animals.
And it’s all at no cost to the veteran.
“We bring the veterans in. Once they’re paired with a dog, the dog goes home with the veteran but the dog and veteran train together as a team,” said Baker.
Not only do these vets connect with their dogs, but they’re also able to build their own relationships in a safe space with other former military members in the community.
“If these veterans are able to focus and have a better day, they’re able to become better parents, they’re better spouses, they’re better employees, they’re better community members,” Baker said.
It can take up to two years to properly train a service dog, but the nonprofit supports vets from the time they get a dog to its retirement as a service animal.
For Koenigsberg, that’s time well spent. Zulu has helped her heal in a way she never thought was possible.
“There’s just something transcendent about that relationship and that experience that is helping to heal me,” Koenigsberg said.
Dog Tag Buddies is hosting its first-ever gala fundraiser this Saturday at the Northern Hotel in Billings.
Combat veteran and master chef Andre Rush will be the keynote speaker and he even helped create the five-meal course that will be offered during the event.
There will be a silent auction to raise money for the nonprofit and tickets are still available.
You can find those and more information on the organization at Home - Dog Tag Buddies.