Meet Cassie Our Hero Dog

Photos courtesy of Connor Good

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Cassie, a Hero Dog sponsored by Phillips Charitable Foundation (PCF). She’s a bundle of happy puppy energy and eager to meet anyone who will sit on the floor and play. Hero Dogs is a nonprofit that received one of our 2021 grants. Staff and volunteers raise, train, and place service dogs and companion dogs free of charge to veterans of the U.S. military and first responders with disabilities in the Washington DC metropolitan area. PCF awarded a $5,000 grant to sponsor Cassie’s care and training.

As I got out of the car, Nikki Charles, Executive Director at Hero Dogs, handed Cassie to me. She was only ten weeks old at the time but already a big armful of puppy! I brought her into the Hero Dogs offices and placed her on the floor with her brother Noah and another puppy friend. They were filled with enthusiasm as they sprinted around the office. There were only a couple of short-lived disagreements between them as they fought for attention.

Taking photos of the puppies was no simple task. They were quick-moving targets. They all loved the photographer and wanted to sniff and lick the camera as well! Their curiosity and energy made us smile throughout the entire visit.

Destiny Goldsmith, Puppy Program Manager, kept things under control while I talked to Executive Director Nikki Charles. Three curious and high-energy puppies are a lot to manage in an office, yet Destiny managed them quite well. I told her that she seemed to have the magic touch with the puppies. She answered, “No, I have treats!”  I suppose their insatiable appetite for treats is helpful, but I think she also has a magic touch!

I asked what a Puppy Program Manager does. It’s such a fun job title!  Her job, among other tasks, is to recruit homes for the puppies in training. The volunteers take care of the dogs for at least the first 18 months of their lives. This is phase one of training.

All Hero Dogs are named after fallen heroes. Cassie was named after Cassandra Kendrick, a Navy veteran, who died in 2021 at the age of 22 rescuing two children from the Guadalupe River in Texas. With her help, the children survived the raging river but sadly, she did not.

Noah (pictured beside Cassie to the left), Cassie’s brother, was named after Officer Noah Leotta, a Montgomery County Police Officer whose main focus was getting drunk drivers off of the road. Yet he died in the line of duty at the hands of a drunk driver. His legacy of saving lives continues with the passing of Noah’s Law in 2016. Noah’s Law requires that an interlock device be installed in the car of all convicted drunk drivers and increases suspension times in the state of Maryland.

Hero Dogs are trained in three phases over the course of 2 ½ to 3 years. The dogs learn all sorts of skills as the trainers determine the best eventual role for each dog. There are approximately 30 dogs in training currently, all at various stages.

Service dogs are specifically trained to perform work or tasks directly related to their handler’s disability. Service dogs have to work in close contact with strangers, in large crowds, around traffic, and a wide variety of other situations that are highly stressful to most dogs. Because of the specialized temperament and skills needed, only one in four dogs will be assigned as a service dog.

Besides becoming a service dog, Nikki Charles explained the various other “jobs” that a dog may take once training is complete.

  • A home companion dog is simply that, a companion for the owner.
  • A therapy dog provides comfort and coping assistance in some fashion. They go with their owners to volunteer in settings such as hospitals, assisted-living homes, schools, etc.
  • A facility dog works with qualified clinicians or staff members in residential or health care settings. The dog works full-time at a single facility to achieve specific treatment goals through animal-assisted therapy.

Hero Dogs raises and trains mostly labs and golden retrievers. “They are people-focused dogs” explained Nikki. They tend to be easy to train and motivate.

After playing with the puppies in the Hero Dogs offices, we went on a tour of their grounds. Hero Dogs is located on a large horse farm. It’s beautiful and peaceful. While walking around I was able to watch a group of dogs working with Sabrina, one of the Hero Dogs trainers. The dogs looked entertained and happy.

We also walked through their small on-site cabin. One side of the cabin is available for veterans or first-responders to stay a night or two while becoming acquainted with their new dog.

For all cat lovers, you’ll get a kick out of this one last bit of information. In the kennel room, our photographer noticed a cat on a perch way up near the ceiling…….in the room filled with dogs. The stoic-looking cat was quietly keeping a watchful eye on all that was happening. We then noticed that there were several other cat perches to choose from, all at a safe distance from the dogs below. Nikki explained that the purpose was to get the dogs used to cats in case they were placed in a home with cats. She also said, not surprisingly, that the cat ruled the place!!!

I enjoy all visits to our grantees but this one was particularly enjoyable. It's amazing to watch how quickly puppies learn at just ten weeks old. I'm convinced that Cassie is brilliant! All of us at Phillips Charitable Foundation are excited to watch her grow, learn, and eventually be matched with a veteran or first-responder in need of service or companionship.

Hero Dogs has an Amazon Wish list at this link. Cassie and all of the other dogs in training would appreciate any donation!

You can follow Cassie on Instagram at @HerodogsCassie.  They’ll post photos of her training and her eventual placement.

Learn more about Hero Dogs by watching this short YouTube Video

Written by Jennifer Good

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