Honoring Canine Heroes

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For some people, dogs are more than just a loving companion. And although September was National Service Dog Month, it’s always a good time to recognize those canine heroes that are doing more for their owners than we could ever imagine.

For Chris Timmins and Pacific, a Labrador retriever, their relationship is the perfect example. Pacific is a service dog, one of many highly-trained canine heroes that have the intelligence, motivation, and skills to help people manage and overcome disabilities. Pacific is trained to help Timmins, a quadriplegic, with hundreds of day-to-day activities. Pacific learned his trade from Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs, Inc. (TLCAD), a nonprofit organization located in Solana Beach, CA.

Pacific helps Timmins with everything. When they are in school, he turns on and off lights that are too high for Timmins to reach. During class, he curls up on a bed or under her desk while she teaches. In a store, Timmins hands the money or credit card to the dog to give to the clerk. The dogs are taught what side of the wheelchair to stay on, that they need to back up to let a person through, etc. At TLCAD, dogs are not taught to pull manual wheelchairs, but they will retrieve the chairs or other walking assistance devices.

An assistance dog is a canine specially trained to help people manage physical or emotional problems. TLCAD is just one of scores of similar organizations dedicated to training canine heroes to help people lead happier, more productive lives.

Canine Heroes Changing Lives

Many service dogs are able to step in when people think that their lives are essentially over. The skills that a service dog is trained with can make an incredible impact on individuals who are struggling with their disability. Take Leana and Bronson for example. Close to eight years ago, life dealt Leana Beasley an unfair hand. She was in Panama where her husband was serving in the U.S. Army, when she suffered a brain injury after she slipped and tumbled down a long flight of stairs in their apartment.

For the next four years she suffered terrifying seizures — sometimes a series of them — several times a week. They put an end to the life she loved: horseback riding, boating, mountain climbing, skiing, even taking a relaxing bath — all were out of the question. The 41-year-old mother retreated steadily into herself. “My husband was very worried,” she says. “It got to the point that I felt I was a prisoner in my own body.”

Finally, Beasley found new hope. It came in the form of Bronson, a Rottweiler-German shepherd trained to respond to seizures. “I never expected the kind of help that I needed would come from a four-legged animal in a fur coat,” says Beasley. “I never thought it was possible.”

Dogs of War

Canine heroes are assisting our nation’s heroes as well. During the 10,000 days of the Vietnam War, more than 4,000 dogs served in all branches of the armed services. Records show that 263 handlers and about 500 dogs were killed in action, but their efforts saved an estimated 10,000 American lives.

Popular recognition of the sacrifice of these canine heroes has been slow, but progress is being made. Around the nation, memorials, such as this one in Riverside, CA, are going up to commemorate the sacrifice of canine heroes in our nation’s military history.

On May 27, 2001, the day before Memorial Day, a bronze sculpture designed by Anthony Quickle was unveiled in Streamwood, IL. The unveiling coincided with the arrival of the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall, a scale version of the memorial in Washington, DC. In this memorial, Quickle emphasized the teamwork and the genuine affection between the handler and the scout dog. The soldier, alerted by the dog, is pointing to some action in the distance, with his other hand on the dog. The dog is in an alert posture, ready to jump. The soldier is kneeling, with his head almost on an even plane with the dog’s.

“They willingly, without thought to themselves, laid down their lives for us,” said Quickle. “I wanted to do a life-sized sculpture that kids can touch, and that older people can feel is an intimate portrayal of their experiences.”

Making Someone Smile

Service dogs are also making a difference just by offering their presence to those in need. There’s no doubt about it. On those days when you’re ill, depressed, and/or just not feeling like yourself, there’s nothing quite like spending some time with a special animal.

As pet owners, we know this is true. But don’t take our word for it — just take a look at all the incredible therapy animals out there, who bring joy to people of all ages on a daily basis.

According to the American Humane Association, animal-assisted therapy has been shown to help children who have experienced abuse or neglect, patients undergoing chemotherapy or other difficult medical treatments, and veterans and their families who are struggling to cope with the effects of wartime military service.

Therapy animals can also provide affection and comfort to people in retirement or nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas, and to those with learning difficulties.

Help Raise a Service Puppy

Inspired by the work of service dogs and want to do your part? Here’s how to get involved with raising a puppy to be a service dog. Raising a service puppy can be both rewarding and challenging. Volunteers raise the puppies who grow up to become canine heroes. It’s a significant commitment of time and energy. Some people do it just once as a Bucket List experience or a family project. Others raise puppy after puppy. For example, Guiding Eyes for the Blind reports a 60 percent repeat puppy raiser rate among their volunteers.

Often the puppies arrive at their temporary homes at 8 weeks of age and stay for socialization and basic training until they are 12 to 18 months old. At that point, they return to the service dog organization for evaluation and advanced training in the required service tasks, if they qualify for graduation and placement.

Resources for Canine Heroes

Want to learn more about canine heroes? Check out our featured articles: