HomeNews & MediaFeatured StoriesA Veteran's Best Friend: APLers Help Local Organization Train Service Dogs for Disabled Vets 

November 13, 2013

A Veteran's Best Friend

APL Staff Help Local Organization Train Service Dogs for Disabled Vets

Service Dogs
APL staff and Hero Dogs volunteers with dogs York (in vest) and Beau.
Credit: JHU/APL

A local charitable organization committed to helping veterans is growing through the dedicated volunteer efforts of APL staff, charity founder and former research scientist Jennifer Lund, and some very smart, furry friends.

APL’s Don Amann, Natalie Dickins, Linda Phipps, and Ted Smyth all share a passion for dogs and an admiration for the U.S. military. When Amann’s wife, JoAnn, approached each of them to get involved with Hero Dogs—a Maryland nonprofit organization formed in 2009 to help veterans with service dogs—they didn’t need much convincing. “We are dog people, and we are veterans,” says Phipps about herself and her husband, Carl. “We know that injured soldiers often need help but have trouble asking for it, so we could see the impact Hero Dogs would have.”

Hero Dogs raises, trains, and places service dogs with wounded or disabled veterans, at no cost. Because soldiers often return with more than one challenge, the dogs are trained to serve veterans with multiple disabilities. By the end of the rigorous two-and-a-half-year training program (some of that with volunteers and some of it in partnership with their assigned veteran) the dogs can open and close doors, get laundry out of a dryer, pick a credit card off of the floor, or even pull a wheelchair to their partner, among other tasks.

Phipps, a former board member and currently a member of the applications committee for Hero Dogs, was involved in the organization’s earliest stages. “Our first meetings were around Jennifer Lund’s dining room table,” says Phipps. “We researched what needs weren’t being met locally and saw that there was a need for service dogs to help with multiple disabilities since veterans often suffer combinations of posttraumatic stress disorder, hearing loss, and limb amputations. We knew we could tailor the training of dogs to meet multiple needs.”

Breeders donate the dogs, and volunteer puppy raisers spend 16 months loving, training, and raising the pups. Puppy sitters, like Dickins and her family, provide a respite when raisers travel and can’t take a puppy. “Our family loves dogs and we wanted to give back to service men and women,” says Dickins. “We have to know the commands almost as well as the puppy raisers. These dogs are really smart and their energy level makes them a lot of fun.”

Once trained, the dogs join Lund and volunteers at her Brookeville facility to work on advanced skills like retrieving keys and working light switches. “Giving up a puppy that you’ve raised is hard, but going in you know it will be rewarding,” says Lund, who raised puppies as guide dogs for the blind during graduate school. “We have some folks who have done it multiple times because they just love the experience of raising a puppy.” According to Lund, finding volunteer puppy raisers is the program’s greatest need.

After the advanced training, Lund matches the dog with a veteran; they then train together for at least six months before being eligible to graduate as Hero Dog partners. Funds toward dog supplies and veterinary care are provided by Hero Dogs’ sponsors.

“Training is a two-sided equation,” Amann says. “It takes both a good dog trainer and a committed person who will rely on the dog’s special skills to work with the dog.”

The Amanns have firsthand experience in this area. JoAnn Amann began using service dogs in 1996, when her hearing loss became profound. Being partnered with her own service dog led to her interest in Hero Dogs, where she is currently the applications committee chair and a volunteer. Over the years, Don has witnessed the benefits, watching service dogs wake JoAnn when she didn’t hear an alarm, get her when he was calling her, and act as her alert system and constant companion.

“It was clear to us that veterans would benefit from Hero Dogs not only physically, but from the side effect of the emotional support they give,” says Amann, who is a regular volunteer at the Hero Dogs facility and arranges its annual benefit golf tournament.

Only one of three dogs successfully completes the training, and those who don’t are adopted. With Dickins’ encouragement, APL Director Ralph Semmel’s family recently adopted Independence (“Indie” for short), who made it through much of the Hero Dog training but developed some issues when eating around other dogs. Lund explains that she can’t place dogs with even minor behavior or health issues with veterans because that puts an undue burden on the veteran.

“There are rewards for everyone involved in Hero Dogs—for people who volunteer and for the dogs who love when we tap into their natural abilities,” Lund says. “Normally, when a puppy picks up a shoe, the owner tells it ‘no.’ When Hero Dog puppies pick up a shoe, we applaud! Most importantly, having a Hero Dog is very rewarding for the veterans who are given back much of the freedom and independence their injury has taken away.”