Soldier Turned Entrepreneur: The Story Of Tommy Doehler

This Iraq War veteran used his experience in the military to launch a successful business.
December 29, 2011

Dog training specialist Caesar Milan, a.k.a. the Dog Whisperer, has some serious competition in Rochester, NY. There, Tommy Doehler is the one doing the whispering. As founder and owner of American K9 Training Services, Doehler’s business—which provides one-on-one, in-home dog training—is booming.

Doehler’s story as a small-business owner is interesting in itself (he’s operating at “125 percent,” he says), but what makes his tale even more intriguing is the back-story. Not too long ago, he was on the streets of Iraq helping the U.S. Army Special Forces as part of a K9 unit. At just 33 years old, he’s already helped guard presidents with military dogs, traveled to secret locations to gather government intelligence (always with a K9 partner) and worked as a cop.

I caught up with Doehler to hear the details of his incredible story.

Q: You’ve spent your entire career side-by-side with dogs. Did you always know you wanted to work with them?

A: Not really. I knew I wanted to be a Marine and do something specialized in the Marines, and I just think working with the K9 unit fit my personality. I did have a golden retriever when I was younger. But when it died, my family didn’t get another dog.

Q: How did you decide to join the Marines?

A: I graduated in 1997 and knew that I wasn’t best suited for college at that time. I liked what the Marines had to offer and was attracted to the history and tradition. I wanted to be part of something bigger than me.

Q: How did you get involved with the Marine K9 unit?

A: I was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and worked as a police officer on base. I really wanted to get into the K9 field, and jumped at the chance when a slot opened up. I was attracted to the specialty because I thought what the guys could do with dogs was simply amazing. Also, the people who work with K9s aren’t really militaristic people—they are more personable, which fit my personality.

Q: Could you tell me about your training?

A: Right from the get-go, I was sent down to San Antonio for a basic handlers course. I had around 390 hours of instruction—everything from basic handling to tone reflection to drug-bomb detection to attack work. Once I finished that, I came back to Camp Lejeune and was matched up with a dog named Pecco. We clicked and worked together on patrol and on bomb threats.

The Secret Service uses military dogs to support their operations, so anytime there were heads of state going somewhere, we would deploy with them. I was assigned to the East Coast and, as a 22-year-old kid, remember standing next to President Bill Clinton. I was also at the David Letterman Show when Al Gore said he invented the Internet.

Q: What were some of your most dangerous missions with Pecco?

A: Right after 9/11 happened, we flew to the Middle East.

Q: What did you do there?

A: I can’t talk about it.

Q: How long did you serve in the Marines?

A: I served from 1997 until 2003. After that, I worked with K9s for a government agency doing detection work. In 2005, I worked as a cop in Burlington, Vermont. I didn’t work with the K9 unit at that time. I worked as a cop for two years, but was forced to quit when I got injured. After that, I took some time off and then hooked up with another government agency and went to Iraq with another government dog.

Q: Where was Pecco during this time?

A: He was at Camp Legume. I had to say goodbye to him when I left the military.

Q: What did you do in Iraq?

A: I went over with a K9 and worked with the Special Forces guys. I was there from mid-2008 until August 2009.

Q: When you got back, did you know you wanted to start American K9 Training Services right away?

A: No, not at all. When I got back, I started getting ready to go back to Afghanistan, but people around me kept asking for help with their dogs. They wanted recommendations of people who could help them while I was overseas.

I did some research and learned that there weren’t many quality options out there for people with dog behavior problems. That’s when I decided to put things on hold and try out training for a little bit. That little bit turned into years, and here I am.

Q: How has your time in the military helped you become a successful entrepreneur?

A: The military has really helped me with confidence and trusting my abilities. I don’t really use militaristic commands with the dogs I train now, but I do think my time in the military has taught me a lot about discipline and teamwork. I try to help the dog and dog owner become a team—a unit that works for both parties. And I have the military to thank for that training.

Q: What does the future hold for American K9 Training Services?

A: I’m looking to expand. Right now, I’m going into people’s homes and administering one-on-one training, but within five years I would like to have a facility and offer top quality doggie day care.

Q: What advice can you give other veterans looking to start their own businesses?

A: Look at the skill set you have. Look for veteran business assistance programs—there are a ton of them. Make sure there is a demand for the product or service you want to offer.