The American Humane Association inaugural Hero Dog Awards, presented by Cesar Canine Cuisine airs on the Hallmark Channel on November 11. Ordinary dogs achieving the extraordinary are being honored, as well as heroes on two legs on the other end of the leash.
“At the taping, there wasn’t a dry in the house,” says Robin Ganzert, president and CEO of the American Humane Association. “Many of those tears were tears of joy, it’s emotional, incredible what these dogs have done.”
During a nationwide six-month search for hero dogs, hundreds of canines from 50 states were nominated in eight categories. Then over 400,000 votes were cast on a Hero Dog website culminating in the selection of eight finalists. That’s where an panel of celebrity and expert judges took over including Whoopi Goldberg, Orlando Brown, Kristin Chenoweth, Susan Orlean (author of “RIN TIN TIN: The Life and the Legend), all overseen by Victoria Stilwell (who better?).
Each of the eight winning dogs walked the red carpet in Hollywood with dozens of paparazzi shooting photos and video. “I felt like a Hollywood celebrity,” said Dione Luper of Des Plaines, IL.
While many Hollywood celebs turned up for the event, and appear in the TV broadcast, from legends like Betty White and Mickey Rooney to TV’s Pauley Perrette of “NCIS: Los Angeles” to Michael Vartan, of “Alias” to Julianne Hough of “Footloose” and “Dancing with the Stars.” Carson Kressley was the emcee. Victoria was among the presenters.
However, the real stars of the show were people like Luper.
In 2004 Zurich, a Labrador Retriever trained by Canine Companions for Independence, was partnered as a service dog with Dione’s wife Patricia Kennedy, who had been diagnosed with a degenerative and fatal brain-stem disease called OPCA (Olivopontocerebellar atrophy). Today, Patty is dependent on a wheelchair and is unable to speak – the disease has many similarities to Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS).
“When we first got Zurich, I went to work and Patti was comfortable staying home because of Zurich, who was able to help her to get the phone or open the refrigerator. That was hugely helpful, and gave Patti more confidence. Today, it’s Zurich that makes it possible for her to cope. And in ways, I don’t understand, Zurich somehow understands her.”
Luper goes even further – saying his wife would not likely still be alive today if it wasn’t for Zurich.
Still, appearing on a website for thousands to see, and then at a TV taping – which millions will eventually watch – wasn’t an easy decision. “In the end, we just felt we wanted to tell our story, and also Zurich’s. He’s been amazing.”
When Dione first posted his wife’s story – he never thought about what he would be a top vote getter in the Service Dog category. After all, Patty isn’t even able to leave the house often, let alone travel half way around the country. “We thought going to Hollywood would be impossible, but the American Humane Association and their partners made the overwhelming possible,” he says. “It was a dream to be on the stage and talking from my heart about Zurich.”
Dione says he hopes the camera picked up on Patti’s tears. “They were definitely tears of joy,” he adds.
Among the eight categories is Military Working Dog. “We are especially pleased to honor military dogs on Veteran’s Day 11-11-11,” Ganzert says.
Debbie Kandoll of Atlanta, GA makes a point of saying Bino C152 is one of many military working dogs who easily could be honored. “Each military working dog is credited with saving a minimum of 150 people in a career,” she said
Bino, a Duch Shepherd, served the U.S. Army’s 35th Military Police Dog Detachment at Ft. Gordon, GA as a Narcotics Detection/Patrol K-9 for nearly 11 years. He was also deployed in Iraq for over a year and served as a U.S. Border Patrol Dog.
Kandoll is working on a proposal to finally offer attention long overdo to military working dogs. Currently, it’s very costly to pay for an adoption of any retired military dog transported from overseas military bases when actually there is available space on cargo and military planes. So, the cost is, in reality, is negligible. This high cost charged though, deters potential adopters.
Currently, individuals award heroic dogs – but there is no formal award from the military for meritorious canine service (which would be subsidized by private citizens, and still the military – to date – refuses).
Also, Kandoll is hoping veterinary care for these retired military dogs would be made available by military veterinarians at cost. “Why not?” she says. “It wouldn’t cost the government, it’s just the right thing to do.”
Kandoll adds that currently when these dogs retire, they’re pretty much considered excess equipment. The good news is that those dogs who make it back to the U.S. are increasingly successfully adopted from military bases
Other dogs were honored in six additional categories, Law Enforcement/Arson Dog, Therapy Dog, Guide Dog, Search and Rescue Dog, Hearing Dog and Emerging Hero Dog.
“This is a tribute to what dogs can do – it’s really quite astounding and inspiring,” Ganzert says.
TV star Perrette, said, “There was only one problem with this event – we needed more tissue.”