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A service dog helps a person with a disability achieve independence. The dog reduces that person’s reliance on other people by doing tasks that the person either cannot do for him/herself or needs to ask for another person’s assistance to do. A service dog can give a person with a disability the support and confidence to travel outside the home independently, (re)join the workforce, or even just accomplish the everyday tasks of living. For example, a service dog can be trained to do tasks such as:
- Provide balance support or assist his partner in sitting, standing, or walking
- Alert his partner to important sounds such as the doorbell, alarm, or the partner’s name being called
- Retrieve items, open and close doors and cabinets, operate light switches and automatic door openers
- Wake his partner from a debilitating nightmare
- Recognize and alert his partner to specific signs of anxiety
- Seek help for his partner in emergencies.
Hero Dogs trains primarily, but not exclusively, Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers to become service dogs for Veterans. These two breeds are in general the right size, interested in putting things in their mouths, gregarious, and easy to motivate and train. Of course, many individual dogs of other breeds can be these things too, so we never really know what the next remarkable puppy (see – Spinone Italiano, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, German Shepherd) we find may be. However, we do not use dogs with coats which require extensive or professional grooming (for example, poodles or poodle mixes), dogs with extremely heavy or thick coats (like a Samoyed or Akita), or brachycephalic (i.e., short face) dogs (such as a boxer).
Hero Dogs accepts donated 8-12 week old puppies from breeders whose primary breeding goals are the temperament, physical health, working ability, and longevity of their dogs. We do not accept donations of older dogs. If you are a breeder of quality Labrador or golden retrievers and you would like to learn about donating a dog to our program, please click here to learn more.
Hero Dogs are trained in three phases over the course of 2.5 – 3 years. You can read more about each phase by following the links below.
Phase I – Puppy Training Program – Socialization and training by a volunteer puppy raiser under the guidance of Hero Dogs staff until ~16-18 months of age. Read more on the Puppy Program page.
Phase II – Advanced Training Program – Training in specialized service dog skills and tasks by professional trainers at our training facility for approximately eight months. Read more on the Advanced Training Program page.
Phase III – Veteran/Hero Dog Team Training – Intensive one-on-one training with Veteran and Hero Dog for a minimum of 120 hours over the course of 6-12 months. Read more on the Team Training Program page.
We ask a service dog to do many things that are diametrically opposed to one another. For example, we ask him to be impeccably friendly with people, yet to ignore people when working and not solicit attention from them in public. We ask him to be sociable with other dogs and animals but not to try to greet them when he encounters them while working. We ask him to wait calmly and quietly with his partner about 90% of the time when working, yet be ready to be active in an instant to assist his partner when needed. We ask him to do a number of things which are decidedly “undoggy,” like not sniffing things and ignoring food on the ground — unless asked to retrieve it. And then, he must deliver it to his partner without eating it! A service dog needs to be:
- friendly toward all people, regardless of how they look, act, speak, or move
- friendly toward or at least tolerant of other dogs, but not overly interested in other dogs
- not unduly inclined to chase things like squirrels or skateboards
- not sensitive to loud or strange noises
- not sensitive to and preferably welcoming of all types of touch and body handling
- unafraid of new situations and novel objects
- confident near traffic, when walking on different surfaces, and navigating many different types of doorways, stairs, elevators, etc.
- able to travel calmly and quietly in a variety of different types of vehicles
- willing to hold and carry just about anything in his mouth, but also to relinquish it readily
- motivated by a variety of things including food, toys, play, and particularly by attention and affection from his partner since that is frequently the only reward available
- big enough to reach light switches, door handles, and items on a table or counter but not so big that he cannot travel easily or be handled by a person with potentially little or no physical strength
- in excellent physical health.
How many dogs do you know who have all of these qualities? This is why it takes a long time, a lot of training, and a very special dog to begin with to become a Hero Dog.
The most common reason that dogs are released from the program is physical health. If a dog has a medical condition that requires complex, expensive, or life-long treatment, he will be released from the program. Service dog work is physically demanding. It would be inhumane to ask a dog with a skeletal or structural problem to perform the tasks required of a service dog. Therefore, dogs with conditions such as hip dysplasia are also released, even though the dog may have no symptoms.
The next most common reason dogs do not complete the training is confidence. Service dogs must work in very challenging environments involving close contact with strangers, large crowds, traffic, travel on public transportation, machinery, noises, and all manner of novel objects. Most dogs justifiably find these things frightening, and despite extensive socialization and training, some dogs will simply find it too stressful to deal with these types of environments on a daily basis.
The third most likely reason for a dog to be released is that he is too active, energetic, or reactive to new things. Despite the fact that a service dog is trained to do many tasks, a good portion of his job involves simply waiting quietly at his partner’s side. Additionally, the dog may be paired with someone who has no ability to physically control the dog in any way, so the dog must be calm and attentive enough to be under verbal or hand signal control only.
If a dog is released for a serious medical issue, he is offered for adoption as a pet. Usually the puppy raiser has first right of refusal, but this is not guaranteed. Our priority is finding the best possible home for the dog.
If a dog lacks the confidence or demeanor to fulfill the public access role of a service dog, we may try to match him with a Veteran whose needs can be met within the home or who largely needs a social support dog. This dog will not be a service dog, but can certainly be of tremendous value as a pet and an in-home companion to a Veteran. We may also look for other placements that suit the dog’s temperament and abilities, such as a detection dog or search and rescue dog.
If none of the above options is viable, then the dog would again be offered for adoption as a pet; we will find the most suitable adoptive home in which to place the dog. Many of our released dogs who have returned to their puppy raisers or who have been adopted are now volunteering as therapy dogs and are working to bring comfort and companionship to retired Veterans and military families.
You can download the song on iTunes here; half the proceeds are donated to Hero Dogs!
Due to seasonal and food allergies “Calvin” was adopted by his puppy raisers and is enjoying life as a certified therapy dog.