First comes the barking. Then comes the bickering. At Bill and Lori Walton's home bordering Balboa Park, the collision of frolicking Labrador Retrievers and the befuddled pool guy means a few things.
Their lives are a little wetter. Their pool filter is in trouble.
And as part of the Freedom Dogs program supporting Marines in the Wounded Warrior West program at Camp Pendleton, it also means their lives are undeniably enriched.
"We have pool parties for the dogs," Lori Walton said. "All the hair plugs up the filter. The pool guy hates it, but the dogs love it."
Bill jumped in: "I tell the pool guy 'Tough, learn to like it.' "
Lori Walton works as a member of nine non-profit boards, though admitted Freedom Dogs rests closest to her heart - and is the one that impacts life at Casa Walton the most.
The charity will host its annual Freedom Dogs Golf Tournament today at Del Mar Country Club. The tournament and dinner help bridge the steep $50,000 cost to train a single specialized partner for a Marine in need.
"We owe it to our young men and women who are willing to sacrifice everything, then they have to rebuild and start over again," said Bill Walton, the former basketball star and television analyst.
"We have personal experience with this devastating problem. We've seen first-hand what the value of a service dog is, in terms of what they offer physically, emotionally, spiritually."
The dogs, which typically require two or three years to train, do miles more than provide companionship. They master advanced skills that help service men and women who've experienced brain injuries or traumatic stress learn to transition and re-acclimate.
Support provided by the dogs is invaluable, Lori said.
"If a Warrior is nervous about someone approaching in public, the dog will sense it and walk between them to offer a buffer and give them a little more space," she said. "A lot of Marines have terrible nightmares and can't get to sleep. A lot of them will go to sleep with the lights on. The dog is trained to turn the lights off.
"If a Marine is having a nightmare, the dog is trained to lick their face to wake them up."
Bill, being Bill, can't resist.
"Lori does the same thing to me," he said.
Marines who skip important appointments with doctors and counselors also are significantly more likely to attend treatment after being paired with a dog, Lori said.
"The biggest challenge in a major health situation is the sense of loneliness, the sense of despair, the sense of 'I'm not going to get better' as things spin out of control," Bill said. "You retreat even farther.
"When you have that dog, it's 'How can I make your life better and put a smile on your face?' It's just such a tremendous boost and aid in recovery."
The Waltons offer much more than their names and time to the charity. The couple backing a staggering 52 charities at last count open up their home and pocketbook.
As many as four or five dogs at a time live with the Waltons - some awaiting training and others retired from the program - while others drift in and out as needs arise.
"When our children left for college, Lori jumped right into it," Bill said. "It's not just the individual ones Lori raises. She puppy-sits, too. In our lives, there are always dogs here and they're so full of life. Those tails start wagging and those noses nuzzle up to you, there's nothing like it on earth."
The horrible reality: More military members now are lost to suicide than conflict. The U-T's Jeanette Steele reported last year that at least 27 veterans under the age of 45 took their own lives during a recent 18-month period in San Diego County alone.
For the Waltons, the question isn't "Why are you involved?" It's, "How could you not be?"
"We spend more on dog food than we do on people food," Lori said. "Easily."
Bill added: "Whatever it is, it's not enough."
Lori Walton helps shelter primarily Labradors connected to the program. "Or 6-11, red-headed Irishmen," Bill said.
This time, the punchline belonged to Lori.
"Bill doesn't listen enough," she said. "He'd make a bad service dog."
Those interested in contributing to the fundraiser can visit FreedomDogs.org/news/upcoming-events.
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