Together with his mother, Liam Miller scrolled through the Internet for a cause for which the young man cared enough to raise money as part of his bar mitzvah project.
When his mother showed him Hero Dogs – a nonprofit that matches dogs with wounded United States veterans – the Millers knew they had found their cause.
“I really like animals in general, and this would be helping both humans and animals,” said Miller, whose bar mitzvah was Sept. 6 at Temple Beth Shalom in Arnold.
Liam held a fundraiser for breast cancer and set out a “jar for people to put money into,” he said, adding that people also donated through an online website. The eighth-grader at Monarch Academy in Glen Burnie who loves Taekwondo raised about $750 for Hero Dogs.
“Hero Dogs raises and trains service dogs and gives them to veterans,” explained Barbara Ramundo, deputy director. Veterans who are disabled or wounded need help doing day-to-day things like opening doors, noticing when the phone rings or picking up dropped items. These pure bred Golden Retrievers and Labradors do all that, and with an enthusiastic tail wag. Plus, Ramundo added, they form true friendships.
Jennifer Lund, founder and executive director, is a research scientist specializing in getting the brain to control prosthetic devices like artificial eyes, ears and limbs. She has raised and trained dogs for the blind, as well as for the Connecticut State Police, and also has run a dog agility and obedience business in Montgomery County.
Lund started Hero Dogs in 2009 and since then has worked with 32 donated puppies, preparing them for life with a wounded veteran.
Ilene Glassman, vice president of the board of directors, became involved after taking her own puppy for training to Lund’s dog obedience classes. Lund was just starting Hero Dogs, and Glassman offered her web-making skills to the new organization. Within a short time, she found herself on the board.
“We are a bunch of strangers basically who came together for one purpose, to use the love we all have of dogs and show the people who gave so much the unconditional love a dog gives,” Glassman said.
It’s heartwarming to learn how helpful this program is, she said, pointing to a veteran with hearing problems who had dropped his keys and didn’t even realize they had fallen. His dog immediately heard the keys drop and delivered them to his master.
The veteran “would never have known his keys were lost until he got into his car,” she said. “It’s little things that make [the program] so great.”
In another other partnership, Maverick couldn’t wake his owner so he ran to the veteran’s husband to let him know. It turns out that the woman only was sleeping very soundly due to the medicines she had taken, but now the family realizes Maverick can be counted on when needed.
It’s not easy to become a Hero Dog. In fact, it takes 2 1/2 years of “very intense” training, Ramundo said. During the first six-to-eight months, the puppy is trained much like any puppy. Then, the advanced work begins.
Eventually, a dog is paired with a veteran and a six-month learning period begins. Finally, there is a three-week boot camp. For veterans who live far from the Brookeville training facility, a trailer unit is provided where they may stay during this time, or just take rest breaks during the day, Ramundo said.
Ownership is transferred to the veteran once the training is complete, she said. So far, two teams have reached that point and another pair is expected to graduate in April 2015.
Hero Dogs in training can often be seen at community events, where they seek volunteers, both human and canine. So far this month, organization members visited the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Fort Belvoir, the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Department of Defense.
The organization works entirely on donations, Ramundo said.
To volunteer or donate, visit hero-dogs.org.