Former military dogs Raka and Woody have both been adopted to loving homes. The two golden Labrador Retrievers arrived at in April, after their previous owner had to give them up.
Faithful Friends, a rescue in North Carolina ended up taking the two dogs in.
Shelley Swaim, operations manager at the rescue, initially tried to track down the dogs' original handlers. But she discovered the retired bomb-sniffing dogs had served in Iraq with Sabre, a military contractor.
She told the Salisbury Post that this explained why she could not locate their handlers, and why the Army did not pay to ship the dogs home after they were retired. Woody and Raka trained, worked and slept alongside Army dogs, but were not classified as such.
Regardless, both dogs saved lives while serving in Iraq and Swaim wanted to make sure the dogs found extra special homes, where they would be given the retirement they deserved. The rescue still felt strongly the dogs should end up with military families who could fully appreciate what the military dogs had done, and that the dogs would not be exploited as trophy pets to brag about "having a bomb-sniffing dog from Iraq".
"We had a ton of good applications for these dogs, but something just clicked with these two families," Swain said. "Not only did these families open their homes and rescue these dogs, but something in both of these families needed rescuing too."
In both cases, each bonded in a special way with their new families.
Brandon Shirley served multiple tours of duty as a Marine. As a soldier in Iraq he watched dogs work with their handlers, saving lives detecting bombs. When he learned of Woody and Raka, he said "I fell in love with both of them instantly."
He told his fiancee AnnaLacey he wanted to adopt the dogs. She thought he was crazy, but after she met the dogs she changed her mind.
During the application process, Brandon visited them both, and he connected with Woody especially. He brought toys for the 7-year-old Lab on each visit, only to find the indestructible toys were shredded quickly. It became a running joke a Faithful Friends.
Woody was taken home with Brandon and AnnaLacey two weeks before they got married. "I've never really had a dog that I've bonded with," Brandon said. "But when they said we could adopt Woody, we've been best friends ever since."
Woody feels the same way. When Woody spotted Brandon packing for his honeymoon, the dog sat in his suitcase. The day of their wedding, Woody jumped into the truck and refused to get out. (He ended up going to the wedding).
When thinking back on his military experiences, Brandon said "I went through a lot at a young age, and so did he," gesturing to Woody. "I wish he could talk sometimes, so I could find out what he's thinking." Even if he'll never know, the two have definitely helped each other heal.
The same can be said for Raka and his new family. Air Force veteran Steve and Kathy Matise recently lost their eight-year-old yellow Labrador, Tucker, to a sudden illness. When they started searching for another Labrador, they saw videos of Raka and Woody and knew they had found their dog.
Initially, Steve figured he would want Woody. They would have gladly taken both dogs, but, in the end, they made a special connection with Raka. "He was so affectionate with us," Steve said.
The couple brought along their 12-year-old black Lab, Bandit, to meet the 9-year old Raka, to see how the two got along. Bandit is deaf and had not warmed up to other dogs since Tucker’s death. But the pair became fast became buddies.
The couple were initially concerned about Raka's health condition. He suffered from lick granuloma - a condition formed from trauma. He licked his leg until it became raw and inflamed.
Steve treated and wrapped Raka's leg every day, calling the bandages "Raka's pajamas". Since being adopted by the Matises, Raka has stopped licking his leg. "He's probably saved many, many lives. To have him here, it’s a blessing. It’s an honor," said Steve.
"I don't think we could have picked any better homes than what we did," said Shelley Swaim. "Those dogs have landed in the lap of luxury."
Read more about how Raka and Woody ended up at Faithful Friends Animal Sanctuary here.