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The Hero Pups Program Is Giving Our Country’s Heroes a New ‘Leash’ On Life — Here’s How

“Our wounded warriors and veterans have given us their best, and they deserve our very best in return.”

To give wounded warriors, veterans, and first responders the physical and emotional support they need, Laura Barker has paired more than 100 trained service dogs with our country’s heroes. Here’s how Laura’s nonprofit organization named Hero Pups helps veterans reclaim their lives — one lick, pet, and cuddle at a time.

The Inspiration Behind Hero Pups

Laura made her way down the hall of the Portsmouth, Virginia, Veterans’ Hospital, where her Marine son, Nick, was recovering from wounds he suffered in Afghanistan. But as she passed one room, Laura suddenly stopped. The soldier, who had lost a leg and sustained head trauma, was usually angry and agitated. But today he was all smiles — thanks to licks and nuzzles from a visiting therapy dog.

As a longtime volunteer trainer for search and rescue dogs, Laura knew how soothing an animal’s presence could be. Yet even she would be amazed at just how life-changing that moment would soon become — for her and dozens of other heroes.

How Laura Found a New Source of Hope

A few months later, back home in Exeter, New Hampshire, a couple looking for a new pet came to check out a litter of Great Pyrenees puppies that Laura had bred. Spotting the “Marine Mom” decals on Laura’s van, they told her, “We were both Marines too.” They got to chatting, and when Laura told them about her son’s injuries, the husband, Jake, shared his own battles with anxiety and PTSD. “I can always tell when he’s struggling, he taps a foot,” his wife, Megan, added.

Suddenly, Laura’s mind flashed back to that day in the VA hospital. She thought that maybe she could train their new puppy to help Jake deal with his anxiety. The couple agreed to let her try, and after a few sessions, Laura had taught the pup to recognize that Jake’s foot taps meant he needed a snuggle. As Jake would cuddle his furry pal, his body and mind instantly calmed.

“This is amazing,” he said. Laura agreed, and knew instantly that she’d found her new calling.

Founder Laura Barker with Haven, future police comfort dog
Laura Barker with Haven, a future police comfort dog.Courtesy of Hero Pups

The Organization’s Impact on Our Country’s Heroes

After raising funds with the help of a state senator, Laura created Hero Pups to provide physically and emotionally wounded military and first responders with support dogs. She began searching animal shelters for rescues with drive, smarts, and an eagerness to serve.

She also recruited trainers and volunteer puppy raisers to socialize the dogs.

When Laura approached a corrections facility about starting a prisoner foster
program, one of the first to sign up was Shasta Ann Pepper, who had been jailed
several times for drugs. “I’ve done so much harm to people, maybe I can try helping for a change,” she told Laura.

Laura quickly realized that this program is changing more lives than she ever imagined.

PTSD had sent Air Force veteran Laura Matthews Tanner down a dark path to binge drinking and agoraphobia. She completed a VA program, but credits her Hero Pup, Gibbs, for giving her the strength and confidence to reenter the world. “With Gibbs by my side, I can go out without trembling in fear,” she said.

Thirty years in the Army left retired Master Sergeant Linda Allsop with a damaged back and ankle. But her Hero Pup, Krista, gets her up on her feet and moving. Together, they walk almost 2 miles a day.

Recently, Laura placed her 100th Hero Pup with Vietnam vet and retired New Hampshire State Trooper Dave Duchesneau. Idle hours of retirement spawned too many horrific war memories, while the long-term effects of Agent Orange exposure left his legs numb from the knees down. Laura invited Dave into a room with two Lab mix pups to choose from. Crossing the floor, Dave’s legs gave out and he opened his eyes to one of the pups licking his face. “I think this one has chosen me,” he laughed. “I know we’re going to take good care of each other for the rest of our lives.”

Recipients of the pups have told Laura that they can tell their dogs things they can’t say out loud to anyone else, and families thank her for giving them back their loved ones. “Our wounded warriors and veterans have given us their best, and they deserve our very best in return,” Laura said. “We match heroes with heroes — and both ends of the leash get a new lease on life.”

Vietnam Vet and retired State Trooper, Dave Duchesneau with his dog Tucker
Dave Duchesneau with his dog Tucker.Courtesy of Hero Pups

A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.

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