BOYDS, Md. (WDVM) — It was a graduation celebration in Boyds, Maryland, on Saturday. However, it wasn’t just humans walking across the stage but also their four-legged friends who received certifications that will help recovering veterans.

The service dogs at Warrior Canine Connection are trained by veterans which founder Rick Yount says the program is mutually beneficial for both the dog and the human. He first started the pilot program of veteran-trained service dogs after meeting with a Marine recovering at the Palo Alto VA Hospital in Palo Alto, California. Yount, a social worker with over 30 years under his belt, took one of his golden retrievers to the hospital and was told by staff that a Marine, who was recently admitted to the hospital, had not spoken to another person since he arrived the week before. Yount did not speak to the Marine when he sat down next to him in one of the community rooms at the hospital but it was the dog who did all of the talking. Yount described that when the dog initially approached the Marine, the soldier tried to politely turn away, not wanting to interact with the dog. Yount later learned that the Marine was suffering from extreme survivor guilt, having lost fellow Marines in an explosion. However, the dog’s persistence and lust for attention from the Marine began the healing process.

Yount says that by having the veterans train the service dogs for their fellow veterans allows them to reconnect with their emotions and patience. He believes it also helps the veterans gather skills that can be used to help them acclimate to civilian life.

“Watching veterans who weren’t engaged in treatment, but when you gave them a mission to train a service dog for a fellow vet, it wasn’t about them, right, it was about them even though they were hospitalized,” Yount explained. “It was about them giving back and having a continued sense of purpose and a mission to do something to help a fellow vet.”

The Warrior Canine Connection graduated their largest class of service dogs in the history of their 10-year program. The 18 newly certified dogs will be placed with veterans. But the process of becoming a service dog with WCC is more than meets the eye. The puppies are first placed with “puppy parents” who raise the puppies and begin preliminary training with them.

Lisa Pendleton is a proud puppy parent, having trained 5 WCC service dogs. Pendleton grew up in a military family where her father, uncles, and grandfather all served in the armed forces. Pendleton, who has never served in the military, found WCC after her father, a Navy veteran, passed away from Leukemia. She explained her father wanted to continue helping servicemembers and veterans even after retiring from active service. When he passed away, she wanted to honor his legacy and feels she has been able to do so through her work as a puppy parent.

“I feel like I am able to serve in some way,” Pendleton explained. “When you see the bond and the work that the veteran and the dog do together, there’s nothing like it. And then that veteran is more himself, more herself. It’s amazing to watch.”

The puppies are raised and trained by their puppy parent for approximately two years. Pendleton explained when the puppies reach a certain age, maturity, and training level, they are brought back to WCC for advanced training. During advanced training, the dogs begin working with veterans, preparing to be placed with their forever veteran.

Adam Boccher served in the Air Force for over 20 years and is incredibly grateful for his service dog, Darby. Before receiving Darby, Boccher, who retired for medical reasons, believed he didn’t need or even deserve a service dog, even after service 3 tours overseas. He believed there were other veterans who needed a service dog more than he did. Boccher says he even initially avoided the doctor who recommended he look into a service dog before reconsidering.

Darby holds a special place in Boccher’s heart not only for her impact on his life but also because of her namesake. Darby is named after retired Captain Ann Darby Reynolds, a member of the Navy Nurse Corps and one of four women to receive a Purple Heart for her service during the Vietnam War. Boccher explained his mother is also a retired nurse and has a very soft spot in his heart for nurses and other medical professionals as they were instrumental in his recovery process.

“Darby being named after a veteran is so incredibly special in the fact that I’m a veteran and a wounded warrior,” Boccher said. “It makes that bond between Darby and I, and my brothers and sisters who have served and still serving extremely special.”

Darby is not the only service dog with a special meaning to her name. Each service dog that is certified by Warrior Canine Connection is named after a veteran. Retired Air Force Colonel John Bryk’s service dog, Dole, was named after World War II veteran and retired Senator Bob Dole. Bryk only received Dole in June but can already see the positive impacts his service dog has brought to his life. He explained that he missed the camaraderie of the Air Force, after 30 years of service, and often found that he was unsatisfied or unfulfilled by some of the positions he took after leaving service. He says that as he became increasingly frustrated with people and other aspects of civilian life, he became very unhappy and he began pulling away from people. He explained that he was considering a service dog when his girlfriend saw a piece about Warrior Canine Connection on television. It was the encouragement Bryk needed to seek out a service dog who he says has changed his life.

“He gives me a chance to get out, gives me a chance to have a good time with people, and gives me a chance to have somebody to snuggle up to when I’m tired of being around people,” Bryk said, snuggling into Dole.

Bryk says it is important for his fellow veterans to understand that regardless of injury or length of service, they deserve a service dog if they believe they need one.

“If you’re thinking that there’s somebody worse off than you, who needs a dog more than you do, if you’re even at the point you’re thinking of that, you probably need a dog, so you should look into it.”

Retired Air Force Colonel John Bryk

The Warrior Canine Connection would like to remind people they should not pet service dogs while out in public without asking first. The dogs are usually working trying to help their handler or their veteran.

For more information about the Warrior Canine Connection, please visit their website.