Service dogs for our veterans and first responders with disabilities.
The Washington DC region is home to thousands of returning veterans with special needs, and only a few options for service dogs through national-level service programs. That’s why Hero Dogs was founded—to provide local resources for our local heroes. Hero Dogs is dedicated to the unique needs of our veterans and first responders by providing highly-trained service dogs to assist with multiple challenges.
Veteran Brian and Candy
Although he has some mobility issues, most of veteran Brian Wing’s disabilities are invisible. After years of service in the US Coast Guard, the Prince William County Police, and the Reserves, Wing suffers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety and early onset Parkinson’s disease. “I worked with anti-terrorism-related activity and when 9/11 happened, was on the advance team to NYC to provide security on the scene for the next two months. A month later, I was called up to Guantanamo Bay Cuba (Camp X-ray) for detainee operations following the start of the war in Afghanistan, transporting Al Qaeda/Taliban detainees from the airport. Once home, I worked on the DC sniper, the Northern Virginia gang task force, and the homicide unit…it was one thing after another.”
He began noticing PTSD symptoms following Ground Zero, and homicide work also left its mark. “I had a lot of anger, depression, hearing loss, and I didn’t enjoy things any more,” Wing described.
Wing was matched with Hero Dogs Candy in July 2020. “Since I got Candy, she keeps me more involved. I have to go out in public with her so I’m not staying home as much. That’s the really big benefit. Before her, I couldn’t deal with crowds and had panic attacks. Now, for a panic attack, I put my hands to my face and she’ll jump up and put her nose on my forehead. She won’t let me stand with my arms crossed when I’m talking to people, or allow me to stare blankly out of windows. She’ll nose under my hands and start kissing me. I have the reassurance knowing she’s with me. We’re a team. I can’t imagine not having her around.”
Hero Dogs, Inc.
Hero Dogs, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation that improves the quality of life for our nation’s heroes in the Washington, DC metropolitan area by raising, training and placing service dogs and other highly-skilled canines with veterans of the U.S. military and first responders with disabilities. These dogs are provided at no charge to the recipient, with lifetime support of the organization’s partnerships. Disabilities do not need to be service related.
“A service dog helps to alleviate some kind of physical or psychological disability through tasks,” explained Nikki Charles, Hero Dogs Executive Director. “We train dogs in three specific areas: 1) physical/mobility support; 2) psychological trauma including traumatic brain injury, military sexual assault and PTSD; and 3) hearing loss, for sounds like a doorbell, fire alarm or crying baby.”
“We train on an individual basis to what the client is struggling with. For example, if a veteran is struggling with nightmares due to PTSD, we’ll train the dog to wake them. Many times clients don’t realize what the dog could assist with until they are matched and we see what their daily lives look like.”
Good service dog factors include competence, temperament, skill level and health. A dog must be in the top tier in all those areas to qualify; they must be able to handle any potential environment. Lack of confidence can keep a dog from service. Hero Dogs can also develop careers as facility dogs, therapy dogs or skilled home companions. Currently, Hero Dogs relies on Labrador and Golden Retrievers. “They have the temperament and drive, are easy to train, and are food motivated,” she added.
“Service dogs can change lives and our veterans deserve the assistance,” Charles emphasized. “A problem is that people think they can benefit from a service dog, but don’t believe they deserve one, and don’t want to take a dog from others they think might have more serious disabilities. But there is no reason to struggle if you have a disability that can be alleviated with a service dog.”
How do you receive a service dog?
The Hero Dogs website includes a basic eligibility screen and application. Hero Dogs looks into why you need a service dog, checks your references, service and medical records, and makes a home visit. Once a client is deemed eligible, Hero Dogs sees what dogs are available in advanced training, and the client meets several dogs, looking for a connection. “There’s a bit of magic to the matching,” Charles said. “We’re looking for the best, most mutually-beneficial matches.”
Once matched, the client stays in the organization’s ADA-accessible cabin with the dog and attends a 2-3 week intensive on-site training. Then the client takes the dog home and returns several times over the next 12 months for additional training. Ongoing support is provided.
Puppy Raiser Nancy & Schroeder
A puppy raiser provides shelter and basic skills training for a Hero Dogs puppy until advanced training at 16-18 months old. “We teach a range of skills, many of which are combined to provide a sequence of actions,” said Nancy Welch, current puppy raiser for Hero Dogs Schroeder. “Our goal isn’t to train the puppy to be a service dog, we give the puppy foundational skills so they are very capable upon entering advanced training, about 50-70 skills in all.”
“We help the dog apply these skills in different environments and circumstances, and raise them to be balanced, happy and confident. With Schroeder, I hold focused training sessions daily, and throughout the day I’ll find moments where Schroeder can apply these skills. I might drop my keys and ask him to pick them up or focus on me and not a squirrel.” At just 4 months old, Schroeder has already mastered 24 skills. He is Welch’s third Hero Dog puppy.
“The most rewarding experience happens when it’s clear the puppy gets what you want it to do. Then I’ve figured out how to convey the message correctly—how to ‘speak dog.’”
Volunteer puppy raisers commit to working with the dog for 1 ½ years. They attend puppy classes weekly, facilitate vaccinations and veterinarian appointments, and expose the dogs to a broad range of socialization experiences, Hero Dogs events and fundraisers. Hero Dogs covers all food, toys and expenses.
Welch is very aware of how these dogs can change people’s lives. After going through a personal health crisis where Hero Dogs were brought to her in the hospital, and wanting dogs in her life after her own dog passed, she decided it was time to give back. “To me, it’s about giving; having the opportunity to make someone else’s life better. It’s an honor and privilege to work with these dogs.”
How do you become a puppy raiser?
Volunteers apply online and are screened through several orientation sessions. It is a time-intensive, 15- to 18-month commitment to the dog. Puppy raisers bring the dog to weekly classes, teach public skills, and introduce the puppy to new environments to prepare them for life as a service dog.
After leaving the puppy program, the dogs attend advance training, or “canine college,” and move into the Hero Dogs facility to work with professional trainers for 6-9 months prior to team training with their veteran.
Help Support Hero Dogs
Hero Dogs is an accredited member of Assistance Dogs International (ADI) and relies on a large Federal grant, along with corporate and individual donations to support its work. It costs $40,000 to raise, place and train a service dog over its first three years.
“There hasn’t been any other time in history where animal interventions have been more critical or impactful,” Charles said. “It’s our responsibility to take care of those who sacrificed so much for our personal freedom.”