Rebecca Phillips discovered her passion for raising service dogs while in college. After graduating and moving home to Timonium, Maryland, Phillips felt something was missing. Two months later, the now 25-year-old discovered Hero Dogs, an Ashton-based organization that has allowed Phillips to continue raising and training puppies with the goal of eventually placing each one with a military veteran free of charge.
Volunteer puppy raisers range from college students to families with children to retired individuals. Phillips is one of 100 volunteers who work alongside the nonprofit’s six full-time employees. Barbara Ramundo was drawn to Hero Dogs because of an occurrence with her own pet.
“Four years ago, my dog came to comfort me one night during a personal experience and I realized there was an exceptional connection that we had. Immediately after, I applied to work at Hero Dogs and I’ve been here since,” says Ramundo, now deputy director of the organization. Ramundo says a large part of her role is fundraising because the organization doesn’t receive any government funding. She also recruits veterans and works with donors, as well as occasionally even walking and cleaning up after the dogs.
“A typical day here is really never typical,” she says with a laugh.
Training is broken up into two phases, the second of which is referred to as “advanced training.” During phase one, dogs are placed in the homes of volunteers and they accompany the volunteers everywhere from restaurants to museums.
“You name it, they have probably been,” says Phillips. The dogs also must be exposed to different types of noises and environments. Phillips takes her puppies to visit local firehouses. After about 18 months, the dogs are returned to Hero Dogs for phase two.
“Give back day is tough. It comes with a lot of tears. But I know that the dog can do a lot more for a veteran than it could do for me,” says Phillips, who is currently raising a yellow lab named Clara. Advanced training lasts anywhere between six months to two years, depending on the dog’s maturity level. The Hero Dogs’ facility has room to hold up to six dogs at a time.
Only one in three dogs going through training will end up being placed with a veteran. Some of the dogs who do not pass the training process will end up back with their trainer and go on to do therapy work at places such as Walter Reed Medical Center. In some cases, the dogs are generally good at their job, but may have a phobia. “
We had a dog, Murphy, who was terrified of shiny floors. We ended up placing him in a nursing home where there is only carpeting,” says Phillips. She adds, “Other dogs will become a skilled home companion. This means that they provide tasks in the home, but not in public. Hero Dogs is good at getting them a different avenue of work if service dog life isn’t for them.”
For the dogs that do get placed with a veteran, Phillips and Ramundo are emphatic about the outstanding job that Hero Dogs does in finding each one the best owner.
“Hero Dogs is really good at taking into account the dog’s temperament and matching it up with the right veteran. They are thorough in waiting for the right person to come along. The first dog that I raised for them, Ruby, she was ready for a long time, but was a really busy dog so we needed to wait for a vet who needed the amount of assistance that she’s capable of giving,” Phillips says.
Ramundo adds, “One of our veterans served in Vietnam and just recently felt the need for a service dog. We placed a great dog with a great human and I think it was really meant to be. The dog has an intense work ethic and can keep up with the intense lifestyle that the veteran has. We have been receiving comments that he is finally back to his old self and that we have literally saved his life.”
MontgomeryMag.com // February/March 2018