On a recent afternoon, Radar, Libby, Abe, Maverick and Jack loped around a backyard chasing a tennis ball and each other — heroes disguised as frolicking dogs.
The golden retriever and four Labrador retrievers, all friendly and playful and ranging from 10 weeks to 28 months old, are five of 15 dogs in various stages of training as potential service dogs for wounded and disabled military veterans.
Hero Dogs, a Laytonsville-based nonprofit, receives puppies when they are about eight to 10 weeks old as donations from breeders. Its aim is to train the dogs to use their teeth, paws, noses, backs and barks as tools to accomplish tasks such as opening and closing drawers, waking someone when an alarm goes off, and picking up a phone dropped under a bed.
“Honestly, it’s the simple day-to-day tasks that make a big difference to someone,” said Jennifer Lund, the nonprofit’s director.
The organization, which began in 2010, made its first match in April between Ike, a black Labrador, and Luke, an Army veteran.
Ike is able to wake Luke up, alert him when a timer goes off for important reminders, and help brace him with a special harness, among other abilities.
Ike and Luke still are training together and probably will take their Hero Dogs final exam in November, Lund said.
“It’s clear when they come that Ike is his dog,” she said, describing how Ike watches and follows Luke constantly. ”He knows who his person is.”
Eleven dogs currently are with a foster family and take part in weekly training sessions, while the other four have returned to live at the Hero Dogs facility for specialized training.
Maverick and Libby, two of the organization’s first dogs, have completed their training and are ready to find their humans.
Radar, a 20-month-old yellow Labrador retriever, recently demonstrated in a training session with Lund his ability to help with various tasks around the simulated apartment space at the Hero Dogs’ facility.
Answering to vocal commands such as “Take it!” and “Paws up!” and rewarded with treats, Radar demonstrated how he could retrieve a wheelchair, be used to steady Lund as she got out of bed, and help transfer clothes from a basket to the dryer.
“They probably have a vocabulary of about 35 to 40 words,” Lund said. “We will chain those words together for more complex behavior.”
It takes a special kind of pup, who is both healthy and able to complete the training, to rise to the status of service dog. Lund said they had to release three dogs from the program for either medical or behavioral issues.
‘An unmet need’
Lund said she started Hero Dogs when she saw “an unmet need” in the area, and knew what a service dog could offer.
She has since seen interest from a wide range of people, she said, from Vietnam veterans to those who returned from overseas only a couple years ago.
From the applications she has seen, five of which currently are in process, Lund said the veterans struggle with health issues including mobility, hearing loss and psychiatric disorders.
“There really aren’t any that have a single injury or a single disability,” she said.
Not everyone who applies makes it through the whole process. Some find that caring for the dog is too big of a commitment.
It is hard for anyone to take on the responsibility of a dog, Lund said.
“But then to care for a service dog, you have an additional commitment to keep up the dog’s training,” she said.
Once a veteran is matched with a dog, however, they participate in two to three weeks of daily training together. If they seem to be a good fit and are communicating well, the pair will complete an additional 60 hours of training during about six months.
Dr. Andrew Santanello, team leader of the Serving Returning Veterans-Mental Health program at the Baltimore VA Medical Center, said he has heard from his patients with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that having a service dog has been “helpful in a number of ways,” such as making them feel more confident in certain social situations and giving them a sense of companionship.
More along the lines of the Hero Dogs who perform tasks as well as offer emotional support, Santanello said a service dog could also help someone with PTSD who has had a nightmare.
“A service dog might be able to help them get reoriented,” he said.
Lund said a service dog could indeed be trained to help wake up someone having a nightmare through actions such as turning on the lights or the radio.
Jamie Clarke of Silver Spring, one of the organization’s “puppy raisers,” said her husband, Brent, who was in the Navy for more than 20 years, saw one of the Hero Dogs and knew he wanted to participate.
The couple now is fostering Grant, an “energetic” and “fearless” black Labrador puppy.
“Oh, he is determined and just wants to do everything,” Clarke said.