LAWRENCE — What began as a problem keeping Emily Fawcett up at night has grown into a tail-wagging nonprofit effort recently featured on “The Kelly Clarkson Show” — all thanks to a viral social media post showcasing a Kansas police dog painting instead of panting.
Fawcett, whose background is in animal welfare, was asked in 2020 to help advocate for a K-9 police dog in a difficult situation. The experience opened her eyes to the dangerous work canine law enforcement animals perform; they are often sent into situations where they might be shot or stabbed, she said. Because of tightening budgets, she said, many working dogs are not provided protective gear by police departments.
“I honestly lost sleep for weeks thinking about it,” she said, until she asked herself, “How do I turn something that makes me sad into something good?”
Her answer: founding Friends of the K9 Vest Midwest to advocate and raise money for police dogs.
“First and foremost, we’re going to provide bulletproof vests for these K-9s,” Fawcett said. “And then second to that, whatever they need, we’re going to be there for them.”
Other needs Fawcett has identified include funding for medical expenses if a dog is injured, as well as support baskets to help retiring K-9s and their caretakers — often police officer handlers.
Whether a police department has funding for vests and other expenses varies by municipality, Fawcett said, noting a K-9 bulletproof vest costs about $2,200. In Fawcett’s experience, police departments that provide the dogs protective gear often rely on donations or trusts set up by animal-loving citizens.
“I think people just assume that, ‘Well, they’re a police officer just like a two-legged police officer.’ Yeah, they are, but they’re not just given things that the human officer is given,” she said. “These (dogs) do get injured; they do get killed. They are sent off without protection.”
So far, her organization has provided vests for 12 K-9s, and four are currently on the waiting list.
As a Douglas County, Kansas, resident, Fawcett said her initial focus was on area police dogs — her nonprofit has outfitted all three K-9s at the Lawrence Police Department — but she has started receiving calls from law enforcement agencies nationwide, including the FBI and U.S. Border Patrol.
“The more dogs we can help that are everywhere, that gets our name out,” she said. “And the more people that know about us, hopefully, the more people are willing to participate in fundraising in some way, shape or form to help us.”
Pup painting by numbers
Fawcett has taken a novel approach to raising money.
After attending many events for animal welfare organizations, she realized “it’s the same fundraisers. People are getting bored, and I get bored,” she said.
Another bout of insomnia led her to inspiration: Scrolling social media, she saw an “adorable video of these little, tiny fluffy dogs” painting.
“I was like, oh my gosh, how cool of an idea is this? I wonder if I can get K-9 handlers to be like, ‘Oh yeah, let’s do this,’” she said.
K-9s from regional agencies including Lawrence PD and Kansas Highway Patrol have channeled their inner Jackson Pollock for the cause. Fawcett also has gotten kids involved in creating the paintings — they get to choose the colors for the dogs and make two paintings, one for the helper to keep and one to be auctioned off.
The paintings have sold for $400 to $2,000, Fawcett said. Buyers learn about the dog artists and appreciate the stories behind the paintings, she said.
One painting session with the Lawrence Police K-9s was shared on the department’s social media, which Fawcett said is “pretty famous because it’s hilarious.” (The account, @LawrenceKS_PD on X, formerly Twitter, has more than 161,000 followers.) The video caught the attention of a producer at “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” who reached out about featuring Friends of the K9 Vest Midwest on the daytime talk show.
Unfortunately, Fawcett said, on the day she was originally scheduled to film the segment in May, the Writers Guild of America strike began, putting nearly all TV show production on hold. She feared that by the time the strike ended, her organization would be long forgotten and the show would move on, she said.
To her delight, the segment was rescheduled and aired at the end of October, featuring Fawcett, K-9 artist Mack and his handler, Lawrence Police Corporal Kevin Henderson. Host Clarkson received a painting by Mack and appeared wowed by his talent.
Holiday gifting that fights crime
Though the group’s “15 minutes of fame has come and gone,” Fawcett said, she’s committed to remaining relevant and capitalizing on new followers.
After her appearance on the show, she said she received several requests for K-9 paintings. She currently has one available, which will be posted for sale at a Facebook Live auction at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19, on the Friends of the K9 Vest Midwest Facebook page.
As year-end approaches, Fawcett hopes fellow animal lovers will donate via the Facebook page to help the organization meet its fundraising goal and outfit the waiting K-9s with protective gear.
She had hoped to make more paintings available for holiday gifting, but she said the dogs’ (and officers’) busy crime-fighting schedules don’t always allow time for art sessions.
The group does, however, have another gifting option: supporters can donate in a loved one’s name and receive a certificate of appreciation for that person. Fawcett is also planning an appreciation brunch during the holiday season where supporters can meet K-9s and police officers.
“I often tell people, I don’t care how you feel about law enforcement — that’s your opinion and no opinion is right or wrong,” she said. “But you gotta love these dogs and you gotta respect these dogs. … At the end of the day, I’m just proud to be doing what I’m doing and I know that I’m doing something with a purpose.”