Of nearly 19 million American military veterans, about one quarter of them live with a disability. Some vets who face physical or mental challenges rely on support from therapy dogs, but the animals can be hard to train and few are available.
The nonprofit group “Hero Dogs” has helped more than a dozen veterans find the help they need, reports CBS News correspondent Chip Reid.
At just 11 weeks old, Maggie and Honor are hard at work. These puppies only have a one-in-three chance of becoming official hero dogs.
“Do you already have a sense of if they’re going to make it through the program?” Reid asked.
“I’m looking for a puppy that is outgoing, interactive, eager, not bothered by much, said Jennifer Lund, who started the organization six years ago. “I can usually at this age rule out puppies who wouldn’t be good candidates, but I unfortunately don’t have a crystal ball and I can’t guarantee which ones are going to make it.”
On average, training takes about three years. Mitch is just three years old and has made it to advanced training.
“Initially we have to say step and then we have to say wait. So they don’t continue forward,” said trainer Moira Malloy.
“Is Mitch a good student?” Reid asked.
“He’s a pretty good student. It helps that he likes his treats,” Malloy said.
“He is a lab after all,” Reid said.
Mitch won’t meet his veteran until his training is almost complete. So he needs to learn how to help with mobility and, if his future partner suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, how to react.
“How do you teach a dog to respond to anxiety?” Reid asked.
“Initially, I would very obviously tap, tap, tap, tap my leg, and then tell the dog to touch or paw my leg and then I’d reward him,” Lund said. “But over time as the team forms a bond, the dog will on his own start to recognize signs.”
Trinity Nelson and York -- named for World War I hero Sgt. Alvin York -- are inseparable.
“If I’m shaking my leg he will poke at it,” Nelson said. She was a Marine gunnery sergeant for 14 years before being medically retired with constant arm and back pain and PTSD.
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“He’s been trained to get you to focus on him if you are having anxiety issues?” Reid asked.
“Correct,” Nelson said.
“And he knows right away if you are?” Reid asked.
“He knows right away. He knows to focus on me,” Nelson said.
Two months before she met York, Trinity’s husband -- also a Marine veteran -- lost his battle with cancer, sending her into a tailspin.
“Getting real close to probably... becoming one of the 22 veterans that... every day that would take their life,” Nelson said.
“What was it about York that pulled you out?” Reid asked.
“I think it was just that we had the same personality. We have, you know, that kind of weird sense of humor,” Nelson said. “On certain days, that’s what I need and he knows it. So he’ll do something just to make me laugh.”
“Because your laugh is a reward for him?” Reid asked.
“Oh, oh yeah,” Nelson said.
It’s that kind of teamwork that Hero Dogs fosters at training sessions like this one at the National Harbor in Maryland.
After almost two months of working with hero dogs, retired Col. Lisa Latendresse found her partner, Ruby. She served 26 years as an army nurse before being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
“Being in charge of 100 beds at Walter Reed going to saying, ‘Okay, I need help’ is a really emotional process,” Latendresse said.
They still have a lot to learn but that’s okay, because they are doing it together.
“Ruby just wants to make me happy, work together with me, train me, and keep me mobile and independent. I know that if and when my disease progresses, she won’t be judging me along the way,” Latendresse said, swallowing back tears.