Advice from the Experts

Hero Dog Awards honor outstanding canines

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Tribune Media Services

The American Humane Association inaugural Hero Dog Awards, presented by Cesar Canine Cuisine, airs on the Hallmark Channel Friday, Nov. 11. Ordinary dogs achieving the extraordinary will be being honored, as well as heroes on two legs at 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. Over 400,000 votes were cast on a special website devoted to hero dogs, culminating in the selection of eight finalists. Then, a 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 dog trainer Victoria Stilwell, host of "It's Me or the Dog" on Animal Planet.

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 handler Dione Luper, of Des Plaines, IL.

Many Hollywood celebs turned up for the event and appear in the broadcast, from legends like Betty White and Mickey Rooney to TV's Pauley Perrette of "NCIS: Los Angeles," actor Michael Vartan of on "Alias" and Julianne Hough of "Footloose" and "Dancing With The Stars."

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'd 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 Patty 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 who 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 not for Zurich.

Still, agreeing to appear as a nominee on a website, for thousands to see, then participating in 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," said Dione.

When Dione first posted his wife's story, he never thought about what he'd do if Zurich was a top vote getter in the Service Dog category. After all, Patty isn't even able to leave the house often, let alone travel. "We thought going to Hollywood would be impossible, but the American Humane Association and their partners made the overwhelming possible," he said. "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 Patty's tears. "They were definitely tears of joy," he adds.

Among the eight categories was 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 her Dutch Shepherd, 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," Kandoll says.

Bino served the U.S. Army's 35th Military Police Dog Detachment at Fort 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 overdue to military working dogs. Currently, it's very costly to pay for the adoption of retired military dogs that must be transported from overseas bases, deterring potential owners. However, there's actually space available for these dogs on cargo and military planes.

Currently, individuals honor heroic military dogs, but there's no formal military award for meritorious service, Kandoll notes. Also, any awards must now be subsidized by private citizens.

Also, Kandoll is hoping veterinary care for retired military dogs could be made available from 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 military dogs retire, they're pretty much considered excess equipment. The good news is, those that 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.

Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column. Write to Steve at Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207 or send an e-mail to Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is He also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute," and is a contributing editor to USA Weekend.