Howling Heros: David Knott ensures retired K-9 first responders remain with their human partners

Mentor resident David Knott has a successful in the construction business for more than 40 years, but he also comes from a long line of first responders—including his great, great, great grandfather 130 years ago and his son, more recently.

The pride Knott feels in the members of his family, as well as the men and women who put their lives on the line to help others, led him 10 years ago to start the Veterans and First Responders (VFR) Foundation to provide therapeutic resources, innovative programming, and healing support.

The organization operated quietly in Mentor for about five years. When his son, Cameron Knott, joined the Cleveland Heights Police Department in 2018, the elder Knott became even more committed to his mission to give something back to Northeast Ohio’s military veterans and first responders, and the VFR Foundation began taking off and gained visibility in Northeast Ohio.

Knott is even responsible for getting the first Saturday in August declared National VFR Day—celebrated by showing support for mental health services provided to veterans and first responders.

DutchDutchAs Knott’s foundation took off, he began thinking about the non-human first responders—primarily dogs—who also put their lives on the line to help and protect others. 

Then, around 2021, after rescuing retired thoroughbred racehorse Back to Gold from euthanasia,  Knott, already an animal lover and concerned about human first responders, decided to begin focusing on retiring military and police dogs.

For the past two years, he has been raising money and formed the nonprofit Howling Heroes—a charitable branch of the VFR Foundation that raises funds to keep retired police and military dogs with their families and cover their wellness expenses in their retirement.

Knott says that the cost of medical expenses forces many law enforcement and military handlers to part ways with their animal partners after the dogs retire.

In November, Howling Heroes awarded its first group of five retired first responder dogs with the K-9 Guardian Award, which provides each handler family with $5,000 per year for medical and wellness expenses such as office visits, prescriptions, accidents or illnesses, rehabilitation, physical therapy, and ultimately cremation services. 

The first five dogs to receive the K-9 Guardian Award are:

Knott says these dogs have more than earned this award and deserve a happy, healthy life in retirement.

“When they are out there, they put their lives on the line,” he says. “More so, in many cases, than the police officers.”

Knott explains that first responder dogs are hand-picked throughout the world and begin intensive training as puppies. 

“From the time they are born until they are eight or nine years old, they are in high gear,” he says. “They live an average of one to three years once they retire, and it is put on their handlers to cover the costs of care. We want to make a difference for the first responders—taking the burden off of them and their families and making sure the dog is getting adequate care.”

Knott says it can cost between $2,000 and $4,000 to care for a retired service dog over a two- to four-year period.

Howling Heroes relies entirely on donations to fund the program, which is currently choosing the next five dogs for the K-9 Guardian Award. Donations of any amount can be made by clicking on the “donate now” button on the Howling Heroes site, and applications for the K-9 Guardian Award can be made as well.

Meanwhile, Knott is renovating the main office in Mentor, upgrading parts of the building for therapeutic programming, which should be completed in 2024. Then he has plans to also create a Therapeutic Healing Campus, which will be known as the VFR Homefront—a first-of-its-kind facility aimed at providing healing through an organic process designed to help first responders return to a happier, more peaceful mindset.

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.