Utah Woman's 'Canines With a Cause' Is a Win for Dogs, Prisoners and War Veterans

The non-profit started by Cathy King is a "win-win-win"

Photo: Courtesy of Cathy King

After years of seeing the dark side of pet rescue, numbed by the memory of the animals she couldn’t save, Cathy King was ready to retire.

“I thought, ‘I can’t do this any more — I just can’t take it’,” the 55-year-old dog and cat lover from Midway, Utah, tells PEOPLE. “It was so bleak, that I didn’t think I could continue. But something inside of me kept saying, ‘Just one more day.’ “

In 2010, King, a longtime animal rescue volunteer, was looking over letters sent to her by grateful people who had adopted pets she had rescued from shelters, when it came to her: Why not create a “win-win-win” animal charity that would not only rescue unwanted dogs, but give their trainers and owners a way to overcome sadness and trauma in their lives?

So she started Canines With a Cause, a rescue organization with three missions: First, to take homeless dogs from shelters and reduce the number of deaths; second, to have prison inmates live with and train those dogs to become service animals, and third, to pair the dogs with military veterans battling post traumatic stress disorder.

“After years of seeing the little faces of dogs dumped off for no reason of their own and wanting to give them a chance, I knew this was an answer where everybody would benefit,” she tells PEOPLE. “From the very first dog — a basset hound— that was trained and placed with a veteran in need, I could see the emotional connection.”

Six years later, King’s program is a popular success, with more than 500 dogs placed as companion and service dogs, and officials at the Utah State Prison set to expand the training program to save more canines and give more inmates the opportunity to give back while serving time.

“It’s amazing how a dog can have such a positive influence on everyone and the environment around them,” Rollin Cook, executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections, tells PEOPLE. “Canines With a Cause has proven to be a very effective way for our inmates to give back to our community in a positive and dynamic way.”

Courtesy of Utah Department of Corrections

“Cathy’s program gave me a friend — somebody who will always be there for me — and that is huge,” adds Mike Schreurs, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan in 2005-2006 and now suffers from anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder.

“I had problems with public places and the stress associated with them, and I’ve missed out on a lot of family activities because I couldn’t handle the situation or the people,” the Holladay, Utah, videographer and father of two (with a baby on the way) tells PEOPLE. “I’d be triggered and would get ramped up to the point where I had to leave.”

Then, Schreurs was paired with Delta, a golden doodle who helps to calm him during tense moments.

“Delta has given me hope and has helped me learn to cope better with others,” he says. “He’s been wonderful. I can start going places and taking care of things in my life that I would normally avoid.”

Nicholas Genes says that he owes his life to his Canines With a Cause pup, Zoey, after years of suffering from panic and anxiety following 2 1/2 deployments to the Middle East with the Navy.

Courtesy of Nicholas Genes

“Zoey’s role is not to be taken lightly,” Genes, 30, tells PEOPLE. “It’s hard to continue to rely on humans to understand and sympathize with your pain every waking minute of the day. Zoey doesn’t care what time of night or day it is, or whether I screw up, am emotionally exhausted or flat-out angry at the world. She is there unconditionally. I no longer walk in the dark alone.”

For King, who got her start rescuing abandoned dogs and cats in 1995 while living on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands during Hurricane Marilyn, seeing the lives of canines, prisoners and veterans transformed always brings her to tears.

“At the prison, where female inmates train these dogs, there are a lot of women doing life sentences,” she tells PEOPLE. “A lot of them will never see their kids again. They want something to love and nurture and a way to give back to the society that they took from.”

“With the veterans,” she adds, “they continue to train their dogs when they get them and are learning to trust and feel calm again — sometimes, for the first time in years. These dogs work miracles. And in return, all they’re asking for is love. Win-win-win. Again, that’s what it’s all about.”

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