Dressed in his Army greens, Chris Hardy stands somewhere north of six feet tall and is built like a tight end. It was while Chris was deployed in the Middle East that he began his career working with canines and training them as cadaver dogs. One day while walking off base, he spotted a young Afghan girl. He approached her with his dog at his side, and the girl immediately began laughing and petting the dog. The little girl’s mother told Chris that was the first time in months that her daughter had laughed or showed any emotion.
It was then that Chris truly appreciated the effect an animal can have on people. After serving his country for 11 years, Chris was critically injured in Afghanistan and his military career came to an end. He returned home in 2006 and began his quest to help fellow disabled veterans.
Through his organization U.S. Kennels, Chris and his wife Mirela are committed to providing service dogs to disabled veterans. In order to qualify for one of Chris’ dogs, the veteran must have a certified disability and a letter from the Veterans Administration stating the disability and the veteran’s need for a service dog. That’s when Chris comes in. The dogs involved in Chris’ operation are either rescue dogs or gifts from breeders.
In essence, the veteran trains his own dog. The veteran is paired with a prospective dog and they both go through a familiarization process – a “getting to know you” period. If the team is deemed compatible the training begins. The veteran and his dog are side by side throughout the training, which is overseen by Chris or one of his staff members.
Every veteran has different needs and the training reflects these needs. For example, a veteran who is wheelchair bound may need a dog that will fetch items on command. Some veterans, particularly those who have committed most of their life to the military, feel lost upon entering civilian life. Without the structure of the military, these veterans become house bound – fearful of going out in the world. A specially trained service dog can help.
The majority of the training takes place at the Holly Center. U.S. Kennels recently entered into an agreement with the Holly Center in which they will pay one dollar a month in rent for the next five years. The group uses several rooms for specific training purposes. Chris Layton of Eastern Shore Kitchens, generously donated a complete kitchen as a training aid and in another room there are tables and chairs, as well as booths, to simulate a restaurant experience.
As the training progresses the veteran and his dog are introduced to the community. For example, they will be taken to a shopping mall, often during less busy times, where they can interact with people and develop their socialization skills. To date, over 50 veterans have gone through the program and 30 dogs are currently being trained. Six veterans are waiting for dogs.
The Veteran Administration offices on the Eastern Shore are aware of the program and as this valuable service grows so does its need for funding. Money is needed to purchase dogs, pay for veterinarian bills, and compensate a full-time trainer. Currently, none of the staff is paid and expenses are being met by contributions from agencies such as the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore and Lower Shore Services as well as individual contributions and very generous support from Macky’s Bar & Grill in Ocean City.
U.S. Kennels has a few fundraising events planned in the near future. The first will be a ribbon cutting ceremony at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 20, at the Holly Center. On Saturday, Sept. 7, the Paws for Vets Bike Ride will be held at the Iron Horse in Willards at 8 a.m. The motorcycle ride is being supported by Hogs and Heroes and Butch Gardner from Gardner Signs.
Many local charities need our help financially and U.S. Kennels is no exception. They do not have a staff of professional fundraisers and the Veteran’s Administration has yet to provide any financial assistance. This federal agency that is required by law to support its veterans is quick to refer veterans to the work of U.S. Kennels, but fails to support the work being accomplished.
Most veterans will testify the VA is long on rhetoric and very short on meeting the needs of those they are required to support.
To support this effort, contact Chris Hardy at 410-251-3714, write to U.S. Kennels at PO Box 1085, Salisbury, MD 21802 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, visit www.uskennelsinc.org.