By Jane Endacott
If you ask Karen Duty how many dogs and cats she has, you’re not going to get a straight answer. “To me, my dogs aren’t numbers,” she said. “Ask me to name them for you and I am certainly happy to do that.”
Benz is a yellow Labrador stud, and Stella is Benz’s mate. There’s also their offspring Swan and Krissy as well as Krissy’s mate Mac, also a yellow lab. There is a pair of chocolate Labradors, Mo, and her mate Axl. There’s also a black female named Khalee, who can be mated with either Benz or Mac. And of course. there’s an elderly Yorkie named Lily, a Dachshund named Sparkle, two house cats. and an outdoor cat.
Karen owns Hellroaring Kennels in Polson, and breeds and trains dogs for This Able Veteran (TAV), a nonprofit that connects service and companion animals with veterans living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. About five years ago, Karen found the courage to submit an application to attend a service dog training in Carbondale, Illinois to become a service dog trainer. “This program changed my life personally, spiritually, and professionally.” Karen attends the training every year as a refresher course. “I am continually honing my skills to help the pups prepare for their next step in a confident and productive life.”
Karen’s duty is to breed the dogs, whelp them, and do puppy enrichment with them from birth. At about l 0- 12 weeks she makes the final assessments of the pups and decides “who has the right stuff” to go on to become service dogs, which is normally about 20% of the litter. The remaining pups go on to become emotional support or family companion dogs.
The pups that are selected to become service dogs remain with Karen until they are 6-8 months old. During that time, Karen continues their Foundation Training. When they’re ready they make the big move to Carbondale, IL to finish their training. “About one year later I make the trip to Carbondale to watch my pups get paired with veterans at a graduation event. It is a very emotional ceremony.”
It takes a dedicated trainer to train dogs for the TAV program.
In the Trainer’s Academy participants experience a tiny slice of the Trauma Resiliency Program that the veterans must complete to receive a service dog. The trainers get to experience how a veteran works through their own personal issues head-on and how a loving, loyal. and nonjudgmental service dog can give them the missing piece to help them through their daily trials. Karen has the tenacity and heart to make it as a TAV trainer. When she started breeding, training, and boarding dogs in 1998 she had no education, experience. or background in the industry. Still, she was hungry to learn everything she needed to be successful. “I used to say I went to the University of Hard Knocks. I haven’t quite graduated yet,” she shared. “Every day and every dog that comes into my life has something new or enlightening to offer me.”
Karen also uses her expertise to serve the needier four-legged friends in the community. She is a board member and foster person for one of Polson’s local rescue organizations, Life Savers Animal Rescue, fostering cats and dogs for the organization. “At any given time I will have extra cats or kittens in my kennel washroom that was originally built to be a whelping room.” The space is used to foster cats and dogs that have been rescued and gives them a fresh start. “So you can see why it is difficult for me to answer the question, ‘How many cats and dogs do you have?’ The number changes not only daily but several times a day.” The Duty household is just the sort of warm and welcome environment to raise service dogs and foster pets. Karen and Dennis Duty have been married for almost 42 years and have three daughters and eight grandchildren together. They met in Lewistown, Montana where they both grew up. “It was love at first sight,” Karen said. “We met in June 1977 and were married in October on horseback.” In those days, Karen explained, it was very unusual to be married anywhere but a church.
Dennis and Karen spend much of their spare time watching their grandchildren in spring and summer sports, but what they enjoy most of all is taking family trips throughout the northwest. “We love to take family trips every spring just like we did when our kids were growing up. It keeps us all connected.” Every Memorial Day they make a trip to Utica, Montana where several of their friends live and ranch. “We camp in the bunkhouse and have campfires, shoot gophers, ride horses and 4-wheelers, brand calves, and hope it doesn’t rain,” Karen shared. “Some might call getting seven adults and nine kids together chaos. We just call it family!” Since Karen’s mother was alive. their family motto has been “Love You!” with the reply “Love you MORE!”
All of Karen’s grandchildren love the pups, but her oldest grandchild, Olivia (10), has taken a particular interest in Karen’s work. For the past four years, she has been a big part of helping Karen with her involvement in Life Savers. assisting Karen with public demonstrations, and filming Karen’s training sessions with the dogs. Olivia is currently training a dog for the 4H Club and working toward a Pet Partners Handler’s Certification so she can take Krissy to school and other public places. Karen says the work has been therapeutic for Olivia and has given her confidence as she learns to work through her own anxiety. So, will Olivia follow in her grandmother’s footsteps? When asked recently, Olivia’s response was, “I could, but I think I want to be a hairdresser.”
Whether or not Olivia pursues dog breeding and training, Karen and her pups will no doubt have an impact on people’s lives. “My dogs are how I plan to realize my hopes and dreams and a dog’s purpose in life. I hope to make a difference in people’s lives, one adult and one child at a time. My dog breeding and training program is at the very center of this life’s mission. I challenge my community to join me in this effort.“