Book of Dreams

Dogs to the rescue: Ex-shelter animals trained to serve those in need

Canine trainer and specialist Justine Borghello trains her 1-year-old Belgian Malinois, Dembe, at Capital City K9 on Nov. 22 in Sacramento. Capital City K9 is a nonprofit dedicated to rescuing local shelter dogs and training them to become service dogs for veterans and trauma victims with PTSD.
Canine trainer and specialist Justine Borghello trains her 1-year-old Belgian Malinois, Dembe, at Capital City K9 on Nov. 22 in Sacramento. Capital City K9 is a nonprofit dedicated to rescuing local shelter dogs and training them to become service dogs for veterans and trauma victims with PTSD. aseng@sacbee.com

Editor’s note: For nearly 30 years, The Sacramento Bee’s Book of Dreams has helped people and organizations in our community realize their dreams.

Christian Frey knew his life’s work was saving lives from the time he became a lifeguard at age 15. But he almost lost his own after losing the best friend that was always there for him after his stint in the Navy – his dog Daisy.

“I didn’t know it then, but she was my therapy dog,” he said.

Frey said he fell into a deep depression and started drinking “way too much” before he found out about the Capital City K9 Service Program. The nonprofit rescues shelter dogs and trains them to become service dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, autistic children and people of all ages who have been victims of sexual assault. It also provides an owner-trainer “bring your own dog” 18-week course at its Rancho Cordova facility.

Justine Borghello, director of operations for the program, has worked with animals “all my life,” with wildlife groups and the SPCA. She started at Capital City K9 as a second job outside of her main one at UC Davis, “but I really fell in love with this place.” She left her “cushy university job” two years ago. The program looks for dogs that are neither skittish nor aggressive, that can take being pushed when in a crowd and can be calm when they are working.

Frey was given Chuy, a large black retriever and pit bull mix, in April.

“No matter how bad my day’s been, no matter how angry I am, Chuy just won’t leave me alone,” he said.

Frey has been working with Chuy and other dogs at Capital City K9, training dogs, “training owners – sometimes that’s even harder,” and providing therapy.

“Sometimes a woman will come in and I’ll be with her for an hour where all she does is cry. She’ll sit there crying, petting the dog. We let people work at their own speed,” Frey said.

He said his biggest challenge is that every day there’s something new, new sets of expectations: “Dogs, too, are each different, and we’re working for the best possible outcome.” He works with clients, keeping in close contact by Skype, text, email or phone, “wherever they go.”

“Having my dog and the training gave me something to live for. It’s given us both confidence to face the world, to travel among crowds, even to AT&T Park to present a dog to a vet during a Giants game,” Frey said.

Lee Michael, who’s been a trainer for two months, said Capital City K9 promotes its facility as “a safe space.”

“Veterans can just come in here and hang out – can open up to people that understand,” said Michael, who added the staff welcomes calls from their clients.

“They know they can call anytime,” he said.

“My phone probably goes off 50 times a day,” Borghello said.

She smiles, giving Dembe, a year-old Malinois, a chuck under the chin. The constant interruptions are worth it, though.

“You know their dog is going to save their life,” she said.

Capital City K9 is open every day. On Sundays, it has a service dog hour where owners and dogs can come to refresh their training and themselves, and the dogs get a chance to romp and play with other service dogs.

Since they aren’t allowed to go to dog parks and wear harnesses that warn people not to pet them, “the service dog hour allows them much-needed socialization,” Michael said. He paused and said, “For the owners, too.”

During the week, some local high school students come in after school to learn how to train dogs, and some of them have fostered dogs before they go to their new owners.

“Anytime you can make people feel good and play with dogs all day, it’s a wonderful thing,” Borghello said.

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