David Essex, a U.S. Army veteran, has known for years that he wants to help the veteran community, but it wasn’t until he began working with dogs that he was able to realize how he could help.
Essex first began on this path when he rescued Ray, a partially blind Rottweiler-pit bull mix.
“My first dog Ray — the reason it’s called Ray’s Hope — was brought back twice to the pound, both times they said it was because they were moving,” he said.
He had never worked with a blind dog before, and naturally he was having some issues with him, so he decided to bring him to Zoom Room, a Los Angeles dog training facility, Essex said.
“I got so enthralled with the concept that my wife and I decided to buy the first franchise,” he said.
Essex then started training dogs and went on to open three franchises throughout L.A., but it was one woman and her dog who stuck out.
“My forte was working with fear, aggression and anxiety dogs,” he said.
Sam was a rescued shepherd and a definite “project dog,” according to Essex.
“I told her, ‘You have to come see me just about every day with this dog,’” he said. “The first day the dog bit me twice, and we had our issues and we had our little disagreements, me and the dog — but she stuck with it.”
Sam had to take the same six-week, level one obedience course five times before he was able to get into a room with other dogs for the class.
Essex came to find out, after working with the woman for two years, that she had severe post traumatic stress disorder, and before meeting Sam, the woman wouldn’t leave the house. It was taking Sam to training every day that forced her to get over her anxiety, Essex said.
Essex had always wanted to find a way to combine his two passions: veterans and dogs. And it was after he was able to help this woman with her dog that he realized how he could make that happen.
He was then able to start Ray’s Hope: Rescue to Rescue, a nonprofit that provides veterans in need with critical resources to help them get back on their feet.
Ray’s Hope works with local rescue organizations to match each veteran to a canine companion who is then trained to be their emotional support dog, or “battle buddy.”
“The overall goal is to find the soldier a dog that really has issues, because the purpose of them working with the dog is that the soldier forgets their own issues by taking care of the dog,” Essex said. “And in about 60 days, you notice this bond that’s inseparable and it really helps both.”
Ray’s Hope doesn’t stop there, though. They also provide veterans with other resources through a six-month program, including room and board, counseling, Veteran Affairs assistance, financial coaching and career training.
The first half is spent getting a dog to pair the soldier with and training that dog, then the last three months are spent preparing the soldier to be financially ready to move out and be self-sufficient, according to Essex.
“We’re helping them make more adult decisions,” Essex said. “With every goal there’s going to be a lot of failure, and what they have a hard time dealing with is failure. So teaching them how to fail is important.”
U.S. Air Force veteran Julie Hollowell and her 2-year-old rescued German shepherd, Lionel, were among the first to come into the program.
“I was actually referred to Dave by one of my other female veteran friends,” Hollowell said. “We met a year and a half ago originally, but I wasn’t really ready to help myself yet.”
“We can’t help somebody unless they’re ready to help themselves,” Essex said in response.
Hollowell had to use her credit card to pay the bills for awhile, and racked up a significant amount of debt while she was out of work because of her health issues.
“It’s like a little hole and it’s hard to climb out of it,” she said.
Essex is mentoring her through her financial troubles as well as helping her train Lionel.
Lionel spent two and a half months at the shelter before Hollowell adopted him.
“When I got home and started petting him, I found that he was completely emaciated,” Hollowell said. “He was skin and bone under all the matted fur, and was so weak that he couldn’t walk up or down the stairs.”
Lionel also had severe separation anxiety and hyper reactivity issues, but a year later, he’s just a completely different dog, according to Hollowell.
Hollowell has PTSD and anxiety, so Lionel is being trained to recognize those symptoms as well as waking her up in the morning and being weight bearing to help with her bad hip.
“Since I’ve been here, I’m seeing a future for the first time in like five years,” Hollowell said. “And I wouldn’t really have that without the mentoring I have received here. I think just being here in this environment where we’re both bettering ourselves, he’s letting his own walls drop and letting me in more.”
Now, Hollowell is beginning an externship with Animal Behavior College in Valencia so she can work to become a service dog trainer.
“I always joked that I was going to go work with dogs because they’re better than people and I don’t like people, but I’m very passionate about it so I’m going to go for it,” she said. “If I have the right tools to handle behaviors, then there won’t be a dog that I’ll ever have to turn away.”
Since entering the program, Hollowell has been able to open herself up to people.
“I’m not letting the anxiety stop me anymore,” she said. “It’s unbelievable how much support you receive when you reach out and open up about your struggles.”
The next step for Ray’s Hope is to find property so they can expand their program, according to Essex. His goal is to have enough room for veterans to have separate housing and a mess hall area to gather, as well as room for kennels and training.
Essex added: “We’re now trying to get the help that we need as far as financials.”
For more information or to donate, visit rayshoperescue.org.