By Eric Dehm
Close your eyes and picture a service dog.
What did you see? A proud German Shepherd, bred and trained for it’s job? Rigid, ears up and attentive, at the ready to help it’s human partner?
That’s perhaps the most common perception when it comes to service animals, and for good reason. Dogs specially bred and trained from early stages in life do indeed dominate the world of service dogs.
They also come with a hefty price tag, according to the founder and CEO of Wounded Paw Project (WPP) Ernesto Hernandez, an Air Force vet and Purple Heart recipient.
He says that while the typical service dog’s costs are in the $25,000 range there is an alternative, and far less costly, option to the purebreds often used to serve our wounded warriors. That option is rescue/shelter dogs, specifically those from “high-kill” shelters.
During a recent appearance on ConnectingVets.com’s Morning Briefing, Hernandez pointed to a rescue dog that recently came to WPP via the Amish community as a fantastic example of the significantly lower costs for training a rescue.
“We went out and visited this dog, a perfect dog and the first thing we did was got a health check,” Hernandez said. “Right now we’ve invested about $3,000 and I think we’ll probably not even be close to the $5,000 mark.”
While that dog, which WPP plans to give to a Vietnam vet in New Mexico, will likely cost around 20% of the typical non-rescue service dog, Hernandez says the goal is to keep the average cost under the 50% comparative mark.
He’s quick to point out that while the cost is an important and attractive benefit, he doesn’t believe it’s the best, or even the main, reason to train rescues in this way. For him, it all goes back to the event that lead him to found WPP.
His dog Daisy was a rescue who wasn’t specifically trained to be a service dog, but intuitively began helping him when he was having difficulty getting out of bed. She presented him with her pull toy until he caught on to what she was doing.
“She’s like ‘hey, knucklehead grab it, I’m gonna help you get out of bed,'” Hernandez recalls of what he calls his breakthrough moment. “When I saw that? I couldn’t believe it. So I started giving her small taskings and I noticed something in a rescue that’s a little different than in a purebred. It’s that they want to serve immediately because they don’t want to go back to the shelter. A shelter is like jail for them.”
Hernandez says his hope is that more dogs will be rescued from shelters, and sees it as a win-win situation. The dogs gain the human companionship they desire, and get out of their equivalent of jail. While our wounded warriors gain the assistance that they need to live their best lives.
Stream the interview audio by pressing “play” or click the share button and select “download” from the menu options to save and listen later.