Hero Dogs, pups help wounded veter­ans

The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - Kerry Tousig­nant The Wash­ing­ton Post WP Bloomberg

A new school year is start­ing. No, not yours. We’re talk­ing about the new­est class in the Hero Dogs train­ing pro­gram. Th­ese spe­cial pups were hand­picked be­fore they were born to be­come ser­vice an­i­mals for wounded mil­i­tary veter­ans.

At 8 to 12 weeks old, the pup­pies leave their moth­ers and join Hero Dogs in Mont­gomery County, Mary­land. There, they are house-trained, learn to walk on a leash and are taught ba­sic com­mands. Over the next year or so, the pup­pies go ev­ery­where with their train­ers to be­come com­fort­able around people and other an­i­mals.

At 18 months, the pup­pies learn spe­cial skills. In­jured veter­ans of­ten have trou­ble do­ing things that used to be easy, such as walk­ing up stairs, shut­ting doors or turn­ing light switches off and on. Dur­ing this part of train­ing, the pup­pies learn to do th­ese types of tasks and more.

Just like you change as you get older, so do the pup­pies. Some may be bet­ter at one job, so they will get added train­ing in that area. Usu­ally by the time a dog turns 2, it is matched with a vet­eran based on its en­ergy, be­hav­ior and skills, along with the vet­eran’s ex­pe­ri­ence, lifestyle and needs.

After pair­ing, each team spends a few weeks in a cabin at the Hero Dogs fa­cil­ity, learn­ing to live to­gether. Over the next sev­eral months, they get more train­ing to make sure ev­ery­thing is go­ing smoothly. If it is, they grad­u­ate from the pro­gram, and the dog goes home with the vet­eran.

For one Labrador re­triever named Gra­cie, it took a cou­ple of tries to find the right home. She was 4 last year when she was paired with Air Force vet­eran Michael Har­ris, who served in the Viet­nam War from 1969 to 1970 and now lives in Way­nes­boro, Vir­ginia.

Gra­cie, named after Rear Ad­mi­ral Grace Hop­per, a pioneer in computer tech­nol­ogy, is spunky.

“She’s not your typ­i­cal Lab that runs into a room and loves ev­ery­body,” Har­ris says.

But she quickly ad­justed to him and learned ways to help him man­age the stress caused by his mil­i­tary ser­vice, a prob­lem that sur­faced five years ago.

Now, if Har­ris has a night­mare, Gra­cie will climb into bed and nuz­zle him. If that doesn’t wake him, she can turn on the light switch.

One of her most im­por­tant skills is dis­tract­ing Har­ris when he gets wor­ried, es­pe­cially in crowded or noisy places. She nudges him with her nose or puts her head in his lap. This helps him fo­cus on her and eases his anx­i­ety.

In pub­lic, Gra­cie wears a red vest that says “Hero Dogs” and “Ser­vice Dog in Train­ing.” At restau­rants, she sits un­der the ta­ble. On air­planes, she sits un- der the seat in front of Har­ris. Other trav­el­ers usu­ally don’t know she’s there un­less the f light crew knows them and calls out, “Hey, Gra­cie’s com­ing on board!”

More than 55 dogs have en­tered the Hero Dogs pro­gram since its start in 2009. The most re­cent class has five pup­pies, rang­ing in age from 11 weeks to 23 weeks: Bert, Nick, Jaz, Ray­mond and Bart­ley.

Ev­ery now and then, a dog has health prob­lems or other com­pli­ca­tions that keep it from be­com­ing a ser­vice dog. Some be­come ther­apy dogs in­stead. They pro­vide com­fort and af­fec­tion to people but are not trained to do spe­cific tasks.

For Hero Dogs and other ser­vice an­i­mals, it’s a spe­cial life. “Gra­cie was wait­ing on me, and I was wait­ing for Gra­cie,” Har­ris says. “I can’t imag­ine be­ing with­out her.”

To find out more about Hero Dogs, ask an adult to go to herodogs.org.

PHOTO BY JEN­NIFER LUND

Air Force vet­eran Michael Har­ris and his wife, Lucy, are seen with Har­ris’ Hero Dog, Gra­cie.

PHOTO BY JEN­NIFER LUND

Gra­cie, cen­ter, poses with other Hero Dogs that have been trained to as­sist war veter­ans with ev­ery­day tasks. MUST CREDIT: Jen­nifer Lund

PHOTO BY HERO DOGS

An­other Hero Dog, Mav­er­ick, helps with gro­cery shop­ping.

PHOTO BY JEN­NIFER LUND

Gra­cie, who helps Michael Har­ris man­age the stress caused by his mil­i­tary ser­vice, meets a cat.

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