Dawn Havens has been in law enforcement for well over a decade, but one date will forever stand out in her memory: June 5th, 2017, the day she met Kara, a former shelter dog in training to become a K9. As soon as the one-year-old “pit bull” came out of her kennel to meet Dawn, she showered her face in kisses. In that moment, Kara became Dawn’s dog, her friend, her family, and perhaps most importantly, her partner.
Soon after Kara gave birth to eight puppies, she was surrendered to Canyon Lake Animal Shelter Society, a no-kill facility in Texas. At around the same time, Dawn was in Colorado, volunteering for the Colorado Mounted Rangers and following the story of Kiah, the first ever pit bull-type dog to officially join the ranks of a New York state police department.
Dawn’s story converged with Kara’s when she reached out to Universal K9, the organization responsible for Kiah’s training. She wanted to know how much it would cost to start a K9 unit, and she knew from her research that the training of one dog can easily add up to $10,000-$20,000.
When Universal K9 Founder Brad Croft called her back, Dawn learned about the Animal Farm Foundation Detection Dog Program, the program responsible for pairing more than thirty “pit bull” dogs with police departments across the country. Croft had good news for Dawn: Universal K9 would train the first Colorado Mounted Rangers K9, and Animal Farm Foundation would fund the project in full.
And they had the perfect dog. Her name was Kara.
Dawn and Kara went through two weeks of intensive training. Kara learned how to be a K9, and Dawn learned how to be a K9 handler. Both were fast learners.
For training, Dawn would keep Kara’s favorite toy — a squeaky ball — in her pocket while the dog searched for drugs. Once she sniffed them, Kara would sit down to let Dawn know, and she would be rewarded with the ball. After the training session was over, Kara went back into her kennel, but Dawn always came back to do it all over again.
In the back of Dawn’s mind, there was always a painful and lingering reality: while she was working with Kara, other dogs just like her were dying.
Seven communities in Colorado have Breed Specific Legislation (BSL). In Denver, Aurora, CastleRock, Commerce City, La Junta, Lone Tree, and Louisville, dogs classified as “pit bulls” are banned. This means that these dogs are often the first to be euthanized in shelters. It also means that sometimes family dogs are taken from their homes.
Many of the places Kara would soon be protecting are places where she would not be allowed to live. But Dawn thinks her new partner will have a role in shaping history. “Kara is going to change a lot out here in Colorado,” she told me. “After they see her, after they meet her, and after they see her work, people are going to change their minds about pit bulls.”
Dawn was finally allowed to bring Kara home on June 16th, when she officially became a K9. Months after being surrendered by her first family, K9 Kara found a new one. With Dawn, Kara has three and a half acres of land to explore. Best of all, Dawn’s husband, their sixteen-year-old daughter, and another pit bull for a sister.
In many ways, Dawn and Kara are the same. While they are goofy and playful at home, they are both seriously committed to their careers. Kara knows the difference between her casual pink collar and her thick, working collar. When she sees the harness come out, her ears perk up, her eyes grow wide, and she sits at attention.
K9 Kara has even learned to distinguish between Dawn’s two uniforms: the one she wears for the Colorado Mounted Rangers and the one she wears for her other job. Dawn says Kara is noticeably disappointed when she puts on the other uniform because she knows she’ll have to stay home. Soon, Dawn hopes she can work beside Kara at both jobs.
Kara would probably have been euthanized if any number of things had happened differently. I asked Dawn if she thinks Kara understands this one some level. “I think she does know that she was lucky,” the handler responded. “I think she’s very grateful.”
On the other end of the phone, throughout our conversation, K9 Kara was playing in the yard. We spent some time thinking about all the things that make this one dog stand out from the pack— her gentleness, her courage, her loyalty, her work ethic — and Dawn and I realized that these are all “pit bull” traits. K9 Kara’s “pit bull-ness” isn’t a flaw; it’s what makes her extraordinary.
Dawn and K9 Kara work in demanding and sometimes frightening situations, but the bond between them is what will keep them both grounded and safe. Dawn hopes her dog’s story will teach us about what can happen when we adopt overlooked animals from shelters and give them a second chance at a real and joyful life.
At the end of each day, what Dawn and Kara come home to isn’t so unusual. When Dawn and her husband go to sleep, Kara jumps up on the bed. She takes up a lot of room, but they don’t mind. Kara snuggles up to Dawn as closely as she can possibly get. And that is something everyone who has ever been loved by a rescue dog can understand.