Hero Project pairs greyhounds with wounded warriors
Marine Corps veteran Jesse Bergeron used to do his grocery shopping at 2 a.m. — just to avoid the crowds.
Family trips to Disney World put the former machine gunner on red alert, searching for escape routes. Baseball games were out of the question.
That's all changed thanks to Doc, a retired racing greyhound trained as a service dog specifically for Bergeron, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Instead of seeing a sea of people, they just focus on the dog and it almost makes the sea of people disappear," says Daniel De La Rosa, director of training for Service Dogs 4 Servicemen.
North Lauderdale resident Sara Donadei-Blood founded the local nonprofit in May 2011 in honor of her late grandfather, a World War II veteran. Late in life, he adopted two racing greyhounds that wound up being service dogs all on their own, she said.
So far, De La Rosa has trained 10 greyhounds for what he calls the Hero Project. The dogs are trained at Petropolis Park in Hollywood at no cost to the veteran.
De La Rosa meets with the veterans first, then trains the greyhounds — former race dogs at the Palm Beach Kennel Club — to meet their particular needs, from mobility issues to PTSD.
"We teach the dog to stand behind the veteran and watch their back so they don't have to be looking around all the time," De La Rosa said. "I also teach the dogs to help them navigate crowds."
Bergeron, 30, says he was trained as a Marine to keep close watch, to anticipate an attack, to be ready for anything.
"If I end up in a very compacted area where there's a lot of people, I start to get really anxious," said Bergeron, a Coral Springs father of two. "When I get in those moments, Doc usually nudges me and I focus on him."
With Doc by his side, Bergeron says he's able to go to baseball games, movies and even Disney World without looking for the back door.
Leonardo Salas, a 32-year-old Coral Springs father of three, suffers from PTSD and social anxiety after serving 11 years in the U.S. Marines.
Scout, named for one of his old platoons, helps keep him calm in crowds, Salas says.
In the Marines, he was always looking over his shoulder, checking for possible targets.
Once he came home from tours in Africa and Iraq, Salas said, he had a short fuse, consumed by anxiety.
To relax, he'd go out drinking or smoke cigarette after cigarette. Mostly, he'd just stay home and not talk to anyone, even his wife.
Then, after hearing about the Hero Project from Bergeron, he was matched with Scout.
"Greyhounds by nature are very intuitive dogs," Salas said. "They can pick up on emotions really well. If I'm anxious, he'll lean into me and get me to focus on him. And if he can't reach me, he's trained to drag me away from the stressful situation."
Greyhounds tend to be a sensitive breed with a calming presence, making them a perfect match for an anxious combat veteran, said Jennifer Rosenblum, president of Greyhound Pets of America in West Palm Beach.
Rosenblum works closely with the kennel owners to find canines for the Hero Project.
"When they have a dog that's retiring or isn't the best racer, they give us a call," she said.
De La Rosa looks for younger dogs with plenty of energy and a will to please.
It can take up to six months of training before the dog can be placed with its new owner. The veterans name their own dogs, usually choosing military-style names like Sergeant and Cadence.
Four dogs -- Scout, Doc, Gunner and Humvee – came from Awesome Greyhound Adoptions in Boynton Beach. The rest have come from Greyhound Pets.
"We're getting a second chance by giving the greyhounds a second chance," Bergeron said. "You gain a little bit of hope with the program, that your life is not always going to be locked away avoiding people."
Bergeron found out about the Hero Project from another veteran, then shared the news with Salas.
"It's the first program I know of dealing exclusively with retired racing greyhounds," Bergeron said. "Most of the programs nationwide have a really long waiting list, and some vets are waiting a year or two just to get a dog. We try to get the word out to other veterans that there's a program right here in your backyard."
How to help
Service Dogs 4 Servicemen relies on donations. To make a donation, visit servicedogs4servicemen.com.
Companies can sponsor a greyhound for up to $6,000 to help with the cost of lodging, food and training.
Volunteers are also needed to foster greyhounds until they are ready for training. To help, go to greyhoundpetsfl.org.