'Hero Dogs' help hurt owners readjust.

'Hero Dogs' help owners with many daily tasks. Image courtesy of dogbreedinsight.com

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, MD-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.”

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. Unfortunately, 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.