Bringing Help to Our Nation’s Heroes with K9s for Warriors’ Carl Cricco

May 4, 2023

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Carl Cricco is the CEO of K9s For Warriors. Prior to joining K9s, Carl worked at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum as a senior vice president of marketing, ensuring the stories from that day were never forgotten. Living just blocks from the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, that day left an indelible mark, as it did for many. He has spent much of his career ensuring Americans never forget 9/11, and at K9s For Warriors, he is committed to ensuring those who fought in conflicts resulting from that day and others, are also not forgotten.

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John: Welcome to another edition of The Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian and I’m so excited to have with us today, Carl Cricco. He is the CEO of K9s For Warriors. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, Carl.

Carl Cricco: Thank you so much, John. Good to be here.

John: Good to have you Today I’m in Fresno, California and you’re in Florida. But we’re both New Jersey boys, and we’re both also NYU alum. But before we get talking more about all the important work you and your colleagues are doing at K9s For Warriors. Tell us a little bit about growing up in New Jersey and how you got here on this journey of life to be the leader of K9s For Warriors.

Carl: Sure. Yeah, good question, John. Thank you. So born and raised in Hoboken, old Italian family from Hoboken. My grandparents came over and basically said, all right, this will do. My grandfather went to high school of Frank Sinatra. So, way back to the old Hoboken days. When the dock was still bustling with longshoreman. Grew up there, in and out of Manhattan. Really grew in growing up in the shadow of Manhattan. Anyone in Brooklyn or that part of Jersey relates to what I’m talking about. Ended up going to NYU, and while at NYU, my dorm was right near the towers the Twin Towers on 911. So, I was just a few blocks away on Clip Street. And that day, like it did for many others, just really impacted my future, my trajectory, my career which brought me here. And I’ll tell you how. So, that day was a day that I avoided like the plague. When it came up on the news, having lived through it and ran from the falling towers that day. I didn’t really want to confront anything. I didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to deal with it. And later in my career, I worked in marketing for a number of media companies, including ABC news. And I got the opportunity to run the marketing department at the 911 memorial. And I took it really seriously and thought it with all of my heart and soul. And it’s just something I really want to do and be surrounded by every day. And I looked at it as a healing opportunity and really jumped into it wholeheartedly once I committed. And I saw it as an opportunity to help myself heal. But also, all of these New Yorkers, domestic US tourists, international tourists, also heal. Telling the story of this day, helping people come to terms with what happened, going down there. And really touching it and feeling it, and getting to know more intimately the details of that day. The heroes of that day. The people who lost their lives. And really getting deep in the weeds to try to help draw some conclusions and heal. And after that experience it was so rewarding. I really decided to dedicate myself to non-profits. I got so much out of it. It was so rewarding to tell these meaningful stories. And when the opportunity to work at K9s For Warriors came up, I actually was hired as their Chief marketing officer. I saw it as a really great opportunity to continue my mission. Not just helping folks deal with 911, but helping the ladies and gentlemen put their lives on the line due to that day. They’re the folks that put their hands up after that day and said, I want to go and try to make this better. And they went overseas and risk their lives for our freedoms. And I can’t think of any better way to spend my day-to-day trying to help these veterans here at K9s For Warriors. And I see it as a continuation of that legacy where, that one day nine 11 really impacted me. But everyone that comes through this program who needs help, has fought in conflicts that were a result of that day.

John: That’s so wonderful. For our listeners and viewers, you could find Carl and all his colleagues at K9s For Warriors. At K, then the number 9, then the letter S for Warriors,, It’s the nation’s largest provider of service dogs for veterans. Talk a little bit about your mission and how you go about accomplishing that and when it started and how you grew it.

Carl: Yeah, absolutely, John. So, the key element that really started this mission is a mother’s love for her son. So, Shari Duval is the founder of K9s For Warriors, which was founded back in 2011. She had a son who went overseas to Iraq. Came back, not the same son that left. And really found incredible healing and peace when she was training his dog, spending time with his dog. And she had a moment, she’s like, there’s something here with this K9 human bond that’s really helping my son navigate his feelings and really mitigate his PTSD symptoms. And she started to get dogs and rescue dogs and find veterans who need help. And really just started with an idea and some wily and some courage. And before you know it, she had 10 warriors living in her house working with dogs and spending time with them. And that blossoms 10 years, or now, 12 years later, into the largest service dog organization for veterans. So, what we do, just to talk you through the details of the program. We exist to end veteran suicide. It’s the reason why we get up every day. So roughly 20 veterans take their own lives every day. That is a staggering figure, roughly 1 an hour. So, that’s why we do what we do and how it works. Veterans come back, they have severe PTSD, or we also deal with show traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma. These folks are home. They don’t know where to turn for help. They’ve been to the VA dozens of times. They’re on 30 pills a day, I’m not even exaggerating. And they’re just looking for a solution. And for a lot of these folks, we’re the last house on the block. They’d heard about this dog program. They have a friend of a friend who knows someone who got a dog, had a tremendous impact on their life, and they apply. So, once they apply and get accepted, they come to our program. Now, the way the program works is we rescue dogs from high coal shelters. We train them to be service dogs for veterans for severe PTSD. That training lasts anywhere from 5 to 8 months, depending on how quickly the dog learns. Dog learns their cues; dog learns how to be that service dog for that veteran. No matter what environment they’re in, they’re going to be focused on their veteran’s needs. And that’s the critical piece. So, we bring our dogs into many different stimulations so they can get comfortable and know that they always have to be on task. So, the veteran comes to the to our campus here in Florida where our campus in San Antonio gets paired with a fully trained service dog. That dog is graduated, ready to go. They spent 3 weeks on our campus learning how to use their dog, bond with their dog, and really understand the value that they’re getting here. And after those 3 weeks, they graduate. We actually have a graduation this evening. And they get their dog free of charge. The warriors don’t pay a dime, and their life gets better because of this human K9 bond that we’re really leveraging. So, it started with a mother’s love for her son. That’s the seed that grew into this massive tree that I am helping managing on a day-to-day basis. But we’re just spreading that love and continuing to grow it.

John: Behind you is a picture of a beautiful photo of a dog and a campus. Is that your campus in Florida?

Carl: Correct. So right there is our campus in Florida. That’s where I’m sitting today. We have a number of kennels here. There’s warrior housing here. And then right up the road here in Ponta Beach or Florida, there’s our mega kennel facility. Where we’ll have an additional 150 kennels when it’s when it’s finished. Right now, phase 1 is done and we have about 100 kennels available there now. So, a lot of dogs in our program, because there’s a lot of warriors who are in need.

John: You know, Carl, I’m 60 years old and I never served, but I’m a proud American. And not only am I proud and honoured to be speaking with you today, and I’m so grateful for your service. But I’m also so grateful for all the service of all the veterans that come back. And for some reason, and I haven’t been able to put it together, and I’m really trying to focus more and more on this topic. Of we just forget all the hard dedication and work and sacrifice that these people make for our freedom so we can enjoy this great country that we live in. And democracy that we live in, they’re never forgotten. I might have these stats wrong. But as I focus more and more on this, I’d love you to correct me here. But since 911 we’ve lost 5 times more servicemen and veterans to suicide than we’ve lost military personnel actually in battle. Is that number sort of, correct?

Carl: Yeah, that’s right. It’s an epidemic, John. And you’re right, people do forget, and I don’t think it’s purposeful. I think people don’t spend the time to think about it. Because it’s uncomfortable and because they have their own lives. And that’s why we exist. We want to put this out there. We want people to know the issues that these ladies and gentlemen are dealing with on a day-to-day basis. Because they shouldn’t be forgotten. If anything, people should be doing what they can to help these folks out and make sure that they don’t make that terrible decision to end their life too early.

John: We’re going to put it in the show notes, of course. But just to say it out loud now and to gut into our transcript. For anybody that has any suicidal thoughts or has any friends, relatives or anybody that they come in touch with that needs help. On a 7/24 basis the United States government has put together a new hotline, 988. People could actually call 988 now and talk to a suicide prevention specialist on a 24/7 basis. Suicide is a serious issue, and if you really think someone has an issue or should seek some help, you could give them that resource right away.

Carl: Yeah, 988 is a great resource, and just recently there was legislation passed. Or not legislation passed, but basically there was widened access for veterans to get their mental health needs taken care of at any facility, whether it’s VA or non-VA, at no cost to them whatsoever. The government will subsidize that, and that is a new development. So, that’s also super helpful. So, I think that as folks like myself and you having me on this program. Start to talk about this more and advocate for more, things will start to change. And I’m already seeing them change. Just in my short time here at K9s For Warriors. So, it makes me hopeful.

John: Carl, how many people matriculate at each of your graduations and how many veterans and dogs matriculate are part approximately at each graduation?

Carl: Yeah. So, like the classes graduating today, we have 10 warriors here in Florida and 4 in San Antonio. So that’s a class of 14. I would say on average this year we’ll probably have anywhere from 12 to 16 per month.

John: That’s huge. That’s awesome. Where do you find the funding for all this?

Carl: So, this is all donor funded. So, we are constantly looking for money, raising money. We still have buildings to build and our mega kennel to get more dogs in there. We have a vet clinic we’re looking to build to keep all of our veterinarian needs here. And integrated with our main campus. So donor funds are really what drives the needle here. We also have some grants that help us and corporate partnerships. But ultimately it comes down to the regular Americans sitting at home helping us out. That’s really what makes this thing work.

John: It’s a 501C3. So, I assume everybody could write off the dollars that they donate.

Carl: A hundred percent. We are a 501C3 non-profit. Folks can get that tax benefit at the end of the year and also feel good about where their money’s going.

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John: Again, for those who just joined us. We’ve got the CEO of K9s For Warriors, Carl Crico with us. You could find Carl and his colleagues and all the important and great work they’re doing at K9-. It’s a K and it’s the number 9, s for, You could donate, you could get involved, you could also see all their great work. Their website’s great. I’m on their website right now. Talk a little bit about the connection on how do dogs help with the healing process of PTSD where pills couldn’t?

Carl: Yeah, a lot of it is this evolution of K9 and human that has gone on for tens of thousands of years that we’re really just tapping into and understanding. And we knew it worked. We’ve seen the unconditional love that the dogs provide, the veterans. And the impact that it has on the veteran lives over time. And we actually got Purdue University involved to start running some scientific testing to see is this just upfield good thing. Or is there scientific evidence that really proves this true? So, what we did was we ran-, well, we didn’t it, but Purdue ran a study where they tested the cortisol levels in humans that have therapy dogs. And humans that have service dogs. Then these are better interest for severe PTSD to our groups and folks. And the cortisol levels will tell you levels of depression, levels of anxiety, that correlate with PTSD. And what we found was that the data was so incredibly compelling. It demonstrated that veterans with severe PTSD who would’ve service dogs, their anxiety levels decreased dramatically. There’s PTSD symptoms decreased dramatically compared to those who were just with emotional support dogs. So, we have scientific data that this is proven. And we’ve also talked to our warriors. We see the impact it has on them. I think it’s 82% of our veterans decrease their medication. The pills that they take every day. And I believe it’s just roughly 90% have decreased suicidal ideation. So, it is profound what these dogs do for these veterans on a day-to-day basis. I think a lot of it is companionship. A lot of it is the unconditional love. A lot of it is-, some of these guys and girls, they isolate constantly. They don’t leave the house. It’s a symptom that is very common with PTSD, dog gets them out of the house. It gives them a reason to get out of bed. Sometimes it’s that simple.

John: How are the dogs procured and then trained for the incredible mission that they are then going on after they’re all trained up?

Carl: Ask that again. I’m sorry, John, you cut off for a second.

John: How are the dogs procured and trained for the mission that they’re going to be living with the rest of their lives?

Carl: Yeah, sure. So, we scoured the shelters mainly in the southeast, in the Florida campus. In Texas it’s mainly around the state of Texas. And we’re looking for dogs of a certain size breed disposition that can be a good candidate for a service dog. And the training is pretty rigorous. We bring these dogs in. We initially temperament tests them to make sure that they’re a good fit from just kind of how they interact with other dogs. Are they resource guarding? Are they weird around food? And make sure that they’re a good candidate for a service dog. And then we bring them into their training. Where they learn certain service commands that really help our veterans. One of them that comes to mind is watching the veterans six. So many of these veterans really are anxious about having their back to a crowd or a group of people. And when they’re at the ATM pulling money out, the dog will actually watch behind them to ensure that somebody’s watching their six. There’s the brace command where the dog will straighten its back out. So, you have to be a certain size and disposition. Which actually helps the warrior who might have mobility issues use that dog to get off the ground. In addition, if you’re in a crowded space, which is a huge trigger for a lot of these veterans. There’s a command where the dog will actually actively make space for the warrior so they can get out of the crowd. And more than that, the dog really is so in tune. The dogs are just profound. They can sense when an anxiety attack is coming. And I’ve had so many veterans tell me about dogs waking them up out of night terrors. Or the dog actually starting to love on them out of nowhere. The veteran’s like, why is this dog doing this out of nowhere? And all of a sudden, they start getting a panic attack. So, the dog senses it before the human actually does it in a lot of senses. So, dogs are profound, and we are really just tapping into that. And really leveraging it to help these individuals heal and enter into life and get back into their independence and living a life of dignity.

John: Carl, how much do you need to raise every year to not only sustain, but grow your program?

Carl: Yeah, so right now our goal is 30 million for the year. And that is for the entire operation. It’s not cheap to train dogs, not cheap to feed dogs, to house dogs. It’s a big team here. We have over I think it’ roughly 250 staff at this point. So, it’s a big operation. And it’s about $25,000 all in itself. To get that dog from when it walks in the door to when it leaves. So yeah, it’s great work. It’s, well worth the time and financial support, but it’s expected…

John: Who can participate in terms of veterans in the program?

Carl: So, if you’re a veteran who has a diagnosis of PTSD, TBI or MST, Military Sexual Trauma. You are eligible for our program. And it doesn’t have to be diagnosed by the VA. It could be a third-party physician.

John: And we’re going to put links on the show notes. But they could apply via link and make an application and contact you. And there’s live links we’re going to post that will get them in touch directly with you if they’re interested.

Carl: Would love that. It’s the same website you listed off earlier, As soon as you go to the page, there’s an application button right on the top right. It is something that we’re out to help as many veterans as we can. So hopefully someone watching this today will say, you know what? I need to get off the couch and I need to get on my computer.

John: That’s awesome. That’s our goal and that’s our hope and prayer. Talk a little bit about the K9 For Warriors Puppy Program, Carl.

Carl: Yeah, so we get puppies in this program. Mostly donations that we train to be service dogs from a very young age. And that obviously is a little easier than training rescue dogs. Because you’re getting them early. A lot of these rescue dogs, they’ve had their own trauma. It’s just like humans, sometimes there’s a lot to work through before you can get that dog to where it needs to be. And the puppy program allows us to shape that dog from a really early age, which is fantastic. It just makes the program a little more efficient in terms of the time it takes to get that dog where it needs to be.

John: Got it. And in terms of our listeners and our viewers supporting. Do you have an annual fundraiser or is this just a rolling basis? How do you go about the fundraising and is there an event that our listener, viewers can participate in if they’re interested in helping this great cause.

Carl: We are raising money all year round. I would say if you’re looking for your money to go a little further. Sign up to our email list, and we have matches, donor matches pretty regularly. Where you’ll know, your money is doubled based on a a third party who’s decided to match us and support us that way. But we are raising funds every day, all day to keep the lights on and keep these dogs in the program and these warriors graduating. At the Veterans Day is our biggest fundraising day. We have a telethon that day. It’s a great way to support as well. Last year we raised over a million dollars in that day alone. So that’s hugely impactful for us.

John: For our listeners and viewers, let’s all get behind K9 For Warriors. As I said earlier, the website’s really easy and it’s a beautiful website with great information. K9, the number 9, the letter S for, Get involved, support discrete organization, contact them. And let’s get rid of this horrific number of 20 veteran suicides per day. Shame on us as a country to be leaving these great veterans behind when they’re the ones on the front line, protecting our freedom and our democracy. We’ve got to do more, we got to do better. And K9s For Warriors is a great place to start. Carl, thank you for spending time with us today. You’re always welcome back on the Impact Podcast. Thank you for making a great impact in this world. Making the world a better place with you and your colleagues and the great animals that you get to train and graduate. Thanks again for being with us today.

Carl: Awesome, John, really appreciate it. I love the opportunity to share our mission, and it’s been a pleasure being on your podcast.

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