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 under the seat in front of Harris. Other travelers usually don’t know she’s there unless the flight 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.”