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GAITHERSBURG, Md. — Guests gathered in their Sunday best at the Shady Grove Middle School’s auditorium last weekend to celebrate an important milestone for graduates named Navi, Ron, Cadence, Birdie and Gabe.

It was a typical graduation ceremony, but instead of caps and gowns, these five grads wore collars. The Maryland-based nonprofit Warrior Canine Connection was recognizing the first five canine-human teams to complete a program in which service dogs are trained for a new life helping wounded servicemembers.

“I want to reflect on the seed that was planted that created the Warrior Canine Connection,” Executive Director Rick Yount said in his opening remarks. “It started about 18 years ago, when two friends were concerned about another friend and decided to give a very thoughtful, caring gift of a golden retriever puppy. I was the recipient of that puppy at the time.”

During that time Yount was working with foster children and families, and would take his four-month-old puppy to work. It wasn’t long before he realized that the presence of what he called a “very special dog” was helping the children and family members deal with traumatic experiences.

“One thing did truly lead to another and another and another, and I got more involved with animal assistance therapy and learned about the service dog training programs,” said Yount. “As time went on, I came up with the idea of involving warriors and veterans who were struggling with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, realizing that nobody was more suited in training service dogs, in making them available for veterans in need, than fellow warriors.”

The guest speaker at the event that celebrated the long-awaited placement of the dogs with their Wounded Warriors was Vice Adm. Matthew L. Nathan, Surgeon General of the Navy.

Earlier this year, WCC was one of the recipients of a Department of Defense grant of $750,000 for a three-year study on how dogs help troops deal with PTSD.

The first graduating teams of the WCC were:

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