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When Kevin Holmes of Thurmont, Maryland, went looking for a PTSD service dog that would double as a competition teammate two years ago, he had specific criteria in mind. Holmes wasn’t looking for a typical service dog breed: German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, or Poodles among them. He wanted a dog that was smaller. Holmes looked at breeds that were still biddable, and had a wire coat. He narrowed it down to German Wirehaired Pointers, Belgian Laekenois, Dutch Shepherds, Berger Picards and Wirehaired Pointing Griffons.

It was “Natalie,” the German Wirehaired Pointer, that fit the bill perfectly. Holmes notes that people don’t expect her to be a service dog, because she doesn’t fit the image that people expect when they see a service dog. “Messaging that only [certain] breeds can be service dogs causes an undue amount of skepticism and harassment when none is needed,” Holmes says.

Exploring Other Service Dog Breeds

Holmes is a longtime member of the dog world. His credentials include a Breeder of Merit of Affenpinschers, and he’s bred Miniature Schnauzers and Standard Schnauzers. Holmes is a military veteran, diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Disorder, Crohn’s Disease and chronic anemia. But he doesn’t want these diagnoses, or his need for a service dog, define him.

When Holmes began his search for a service dog, he wanted to go in a different direction than the breeds he knew. He didn’t just want a service dog, he also wanted a conformation competitor. In the process of getting a service dog, he wanted to expand his horizons. “I was adamant about wanting a breed of service dog that is not aligned with the breeds I specialize in,” Holmes says. He eventually opted for the German Wirehaired Pointer as his breed of choice for a service dog and companion. He connected with Deanna Donahue, the breeder behind Double D German Wirehaired Pointers in Umatilla, Florida.

Lauren Lind

“I was frank with Dee about my need for a service dog,” Holmes says. He wanted to make sure she knew he wasn’t “collecting” breeds. He emphasized that he had a specific need for a service dog. “I also sought to set the puppy up for success by ensuring I would get one who had the right temperament and aptitude for service.” As it turned out, Donahue was familiar with service dog work, making her the perfect person to connect him with his future dog.

Conformation and Service Training in Full Swing

Natalie joined Holmes in 2022 at home with his partner, Ed Lind. They live on a 40-acre farm with goats, chickens, turkeys, guineas, rabbits, ducks, geese, three former draft horses and a draft mule. The farm also includes its designated livestock guardians: three Great Pyrenees and an Anatolian Shepherd.

The first year with Natalie, Holmes focused on socializing her and creating positive experiences to set her up for success. This included getting her comfortable with being handled and shown. She spent time with Holmes’ Schnauzer and Affenpinscher handlers, Cassie and Maurico Vegas of Mardella Springs, Maryland. They concentrated on coat maintenance and show-ring training with Natalie to get her acquainted with the world on conformation. This helped lay the groundwork for the young dog’s successful pairing with her eventual first handler, Kami West, in Bronson, Iowa.

Natalie’s training didn’t just take her from Maryland to Iowa. Next up was Service Dog training at Partners for Patriots, near Sioux Falls, Iowa. Here, she learned to recognize symptoms of PTSD, and understand what to do if, for example, Holmes became dizzy from low iron, or how to rouse him if he lost consciousness after passing out. This training would help provide stability for Holmes and Lind, and give them more peace of mind.

To be eligible for training at Partners for Patriots, a dog must be 1 year old and pass an initial assessment. Holmes says that Natalie’s early conformation training really made a different. “he was able to complete her training with flying colors thanks to that first year of socialization,” Holmes says.

Balancing Dog Shows and Service Dog Duties

Alyssa Janiszak

One of the chief challenges, especially in the beginning, for Team Natalie was coordinating her show schedule. Being Holmes’ service dog and companion, her handlers needed to work closely with Holmes to make room for the events she wanted to show in. They also recognized that she needed to be there for Holmes as his service dog. Part of this was balancing when and where shows would realistically get her points, and which ones they could sit out on.

“I worked diligently with Kami and Cindy Brodie at Partners for Patriots between April and October,”  Holmes said. He wanted to know when he could take Natalie from the program to attend important shows. She would also need to be back to attend her work schedule for important milestones.

In order to take leave, she’d need to show that she was learning quickly. “This required that she perform not only in the ring but also demonstrate a developing competency when returned to the training center,” Holmes said.

Last year proved highly productive for Natalie as West guided the whimsical GWP to both Conformation Championship and Grand Championship titles. They accrued this points in the Midwest, since there weren’t many GWP entries at shows near Holmes’ Maryland residence.

After months on the road Natalie completed her training. After the GWP National Show last October, she returned home from Iowa, and lives with Holmes and Lind full-time. It turned out to be good timing. Only a month later, her service dog skills were put to the test. Holmes fell, passed out, and hit his head. Natalie was immediately at his side and helped wake him. “That was a true blessing,” Holmes smiles.

Conformation is Just the Beginning

So what’s ahead for young Natalie? Holmes says he’s looking at potentially doing AKC Rally, Scent Work, and Farm Dog certifications with her. “Another thing that we are eying,” adds Holmes, “that suits her as a Sporting breed, is a Junior Hunter title.”

Kevin Holmes

If Conformation opportunities arise this year, Holmes will enter her in Owner-Handler competitions in the Mid-Atlantic region. Otherwise, should any out-of-area shows or specialty opportunities arise, West will most likely handle her.

Despite his extensive homework on the German Wirehaired Pointer, Holmes is sometimes still getting used to GWPs. “Natalie is nothing like the Schnauzers I have surrounded myself with. I have become so accustomed to dogs that constantly try to provide themselves to be smarter than me and bark at simple leaf-blowing,” Holmes says. “Natalie is content to just be with me and enjoy life.”