HOWARD COUNTY, MD — When Chris Hipsley joined the Army in 2001, he was looking for a path forward in life and a way to determine what career choice fit him best. He became a medic with a heart for helping others.
Hipsley served for 13 years and was promoted through the ranks to sergeant, serving three tours in the Middle East. He also was awarded the Bronze Star with Combat Distinguished Valor for saving five soldiers who were in a battle, two additional Bronze Stars, and the Army Commendation Medal.
But being a medic during wartime also meant that although he wasn't engaged in combat, he still saw the "worst of the worst" while treating fellow wounded soldiers. Eventually, Chris Hipsley developed post-traumatic stress disorder, along with other medical issues related to combat. When he returned home after his third tour of duty, his parents, Pat and Jane of Catonsville, recognized that he needed a service dog to help him "focus on something other than his memories of battle."
"There were no dogs available anywhere we looked and in a short time, Chris lost his battle with PTSD and took his life in November 2014," Pat Hipsley told Patch. "At that time, we said we needed to do more to help other veterans, but we weren’t sure what that would be. A friend of ours ran into one of Warrior Canine Connection's puppy parents and got the information to pass on to us. It was a perfect answer to our quest to 'do more than just mourn the loss of our son.'"
Puppies destined for greatness
Warrior Canine Connection, or WCC, is based out of Montgomery County but relies on "puppy parents" to raise and help train the future service dogs for up to two years at regional sites, including one in Howard County. The nonprofit focuses on breeding, raising and training highly skilled service dogs for service members and veterans with invisible and visible wounds.
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WCC is seeking new puppy parent volunteers for several locations, said Beth Bourgeois, spokesperson for WCC.
Puppies between the ages of eight to 12 weeks go home with their puppy parent to prepare for their important job. Once they successfully graduate from the program, the dogs are placed with a forever veteran.
"To be eligible for this important task, volunteers must be at least 18 years of age, attend weekly training sessions, and of course, must love dogs. After you fill out an application, someone from our puppy program team will conduct a phone interview before scheduling you for basic training," Bourgeois told Patch.
The Hipsleys applied to WCC to see how they could help. They didn't want other families to go through the loss they experienced.
"We could see the good that these animals were doing for veterans and their families. Learning to train a service dog was an easy thing to do with WCC and helped us focus on something positive. The dog we raised actually was therapeutic for us and pulled us from the darkness of losing a child. One of the ways we approached our life was to always try to take a negative and make it a positive. Being a puppy parent checked that box," Hipsley said. "WCC needs puppy parents to address the backlog of veterans needing dogs. I read somewhere that there are approximately 500,000 veterans in need of service dogs. We are a small cog in that wheel but each cog helps."
14 service dogs and counting
Since they started as puppy parents, the Hipsleys have raised 14 WCC pups and counting. They'll be the first to confess their first experience wasn't exactly a success as the black Lab named Jack wanted to be more of a family dog, so he was released from the program as a military family dog, destined to be loved upon by a family with military ties. But the Hipsleys witnessed firsthand what joy Jack brought to the family he went to and how much other service dogs that graduated from the program were doing to help their veterans.
"We cried a lot when Jack went on his way, but perked up when we received Rossi, a golden retriever. She was a fun pup and made it to service dog status in two years. The impact she had on her soldier was wonderful and we were hooked," Hipsley said.
"Once Rossi lit up a veteran’s world, we just went for it and started raising two or three at a time. It has become a mission of love to help soldiers heal," he said. "The service trains our men and women to be soldiers, but it never helps them to become citizens again. They become a discardable asset once their need is no longer required or they choose to leave."
Right now, the Hipsleys are loving upon and training three dogs. Devin was a breeder pup who had a combined 18 pups in two litters and will be retired to serve as an ambassador dog for WCC and live with the Hipsleys for the rest of her life. The other two dogs are yellow Labs and doing great in the program, Pat Hipsley said.
"Mary will go into advanced training May 8 and Blair is under consideration to work in a traumatic brain injury placement for a year in California, where she will impact close to 100 veterans. This is truly exciting to any puppy parent and rewarding as well. Regardless, if one of our pups makes it or has an alternative career, it is just as rewarding because these dogs impact soldiers during the two years through programs such as Veteran’s Court, work at the VFW and in a program called Mission Based Trauma Recovery. Success comes in a lot of different looks and ways," Hipsley said.
Making a difference
All of WCC’s service dogs in training are either golden retrievers or Labrador retrievers, and bred for health, temperament and longevity. The WCC Director Dog Programs researches at least 12 generations of each dog’s pedigree to obtain an accurate picture of his or her genetic potential to become a successful service dog for a service member or veteran, Bourgeois said.
Puppies engaged in WCC go through multiple temperament assessments throughout their training career. For dogs who certain challenges, there are five other placements for them that allow them to still work through WCC, including military family support dog, facility dog, therapy dog and more.
"If anyone has a desire to honor and support our soldiers, this program is a perfect way to show it and you get to cuddle with a puppy and watch it grow to help others. We owe our veterans a debt that goes beyond gratitude; it goes all the way to support for healing," Hipsley said.
Service dogs go on to help soldiers with PTSD, traumatic brain injury or mobility issues. But the Hipsleys will tell you that there's a "selfish side" to WCC.
"Puppy parents get to fall in love, care for and release loving animals into the world. Yes we cry every time we turn in a pup but they are tears of sadness for letting 'our child' go and tears of joy for the impact they will have on their veteran. We are on top of what litters are going on at WCC and work to make sure we have a pup to come home to ease the loss," Hipsley said. "WCC provides food, the leash, a collar, vests, veterinary care and support. We get to provide tons of love, attention, a few toys, an hour of scheduled training a week and some socialization time."
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