The popular adage of the dog being "man's best friend" doesn't quite cut it when describing America's working canines.
For the members of the military, police officers, search and rescue personnel, and others who rely on dogs in their daily work, the four-legged partners provide protection and loyal service, along with a firm friendship.
Recognizing the value working dogs provide to the military and emergency responders – as well as the risks they face while engaged in their work – prompted Cindy Elkind to launch Kevlar for K9s, a nonprofit organization that raises funds to provide ballistic vests for working canines.
“Especially in suspect apprehension, they face getting shot or stabbed … if it’s a meth [amphetamine] lab, they face poisoning or explosion,” says Ms. Elkind, a dog lover at heart. “They face any and probably more dangers than the actual handlers, because they are sent in first.”
Whether it is a building search or the hot pursuit of a suspect in a dangerous situation, canines are typically deployed ahead of their human counterparts. Elkind uses the example of a dog sent after a subject fleeing into a dark, unsecured building or a wooded area – a working canine will take over for law enforcement officers to track, locate, and apprehend the target.
“They are actually there, being the first responders,” she says. “It is nice to know that the dogs have some protection, like the people.”
The idea came about in 2007, when Elkind, who lives in Denver, met a kennel master at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo., through her daughter, who has served in the US Air Force. She began talking with the service member about the role working dogs play in the military, as well as the perils they confront without fear or hesitation.
“His two canines were the first two I vested,” says Elkind, who adds that the idea sparked a more organized effort to provide protection for more working dogs.
She began to work with a corporation to obtain vests manufactured specifically for canines, designed to repel both bullets and knives or other sharp implements – a capability that makes them “stab-listic” armor as well.
“It will repel a knife or an ice pick, or a shard of glass,” she says. “That’s the best vest.”
But at $1,300 a piece, Elkind says that such protection comes at a cost. Fortunately for her, the effort has also been met with a great deal of generosity.
Since 2007, Elkind has been able to raise enough funds to vest 141 canines. Of those, most serve in domestic law enforcement, though others have been trained to work with arson investigators, search and rescue agencies, and branches of the military.
Not believing in spending money to advertise for her cause, Elkind relies exclusively on word-of-mouth and social media to garner support. She also posts photos and information on Facebook about every dog Kevlar for K9s puts in a vest, and says that the platform has helped to increase awareness.
And as a one-woman show running Kevlar for K9s in her spare time, Elkind has come to believe firmly in the saying that “every penny counts” – literally.
“I got a bag of pennies from two little girls once,” she says, adding how touching the gesture was. “I will accept anything [people] are willing to send.”
Lately, she says, some donations have come from couples getting married, who encourage guests and loved ones to contribute to the cause in lieu of gifts.
A lifelong animal lover, Elkind has volunteered at animal shelters and rescue groups. She has also volunteered the services of her personal pets in therapy programs in both hospices and hospitals, and additionally as “listeners” for children's reading programs. She has also taken college courses in animal physiology.
In her professional life, she has worked with a national commercial real estate service firm, as well as a healthcare organization.
While running Kevlar for K9s takes a good deal of her time, Elkind believes it is worthwhile.
“It is a labor of love,” she says. “Every time I can vest a dog, it just makes my heart feel good.”
And in at least one case, that labor paid off in a very big way.
About a week after Elkind provided a vest for one dog, she says, the canine was trying to catch a man running from police.
“The suspect that [the dog] was tracking down was trying to stab him,” she says. The suspect "did try with great vigor to stab this canine, but he couldn’t – the vest repelled it.”
• For more information, to learn how to request a vest, or to support Kevlar for K9s, visit http://kevlarfork9s.org.