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Have you ever wondered what the journey is like for a dog to become a fully-functioning service animal? As part of a limited pilot program, employees at Booz Allen’s McLean campus are watching this journey unfold for a 15-month-old yellow lab named Sadie.
Program Manager Megan Helsel understands the healing power and support service dogs provide. Having led volunteer therapy dog groups, Megan expanded her impact last year. She became a trained puppy raiser for Hero Dogs, Inc, a not-for-profit dedicated to improving lives of veterans and first responders by raising, training, and placing service dogs and other highly skilled canines free of charge.
The Hero Dogs program is an intensive 22-month labor of love that prepares dogs to support veteran partners across a range of disabilities, from PTSD to physical impairments.
Throughout Sadie’s first 16-18 months, Megan, along with chief of staff Katherine Zimmerman (KZ), embarked on a 24x7 job to teach Sadie proper behavior, intermediate commands, and skills—while exposing her to situations aimed at desensitizing her to outside stimuli. Things that typically stress or tempt other dogs—navigating crowds, attending concerts, resting in an office, traveling via car, metro or airplane—are everyday situations that cannot phase a service dog.
When Sadie is about 18 months old, she’ll relocate to the Hero Dogs facility, where she’ll undergo advanced training to determine the area of service for which she is most suited, and be matched with a veteran/first responder. Training culminates with a graduation ceremony to honor the Hero Dogs, their new partners, and former raisers. Saying goodbye to Sadie is a moment both Megan and KZ agree will be met with smiles and tears.
Megan: She’s energetic, extremely intelligent, and loves to work—which will make her incredibly successful. Sadie is happiest with brow furrowed, learning her way through a new challenge. Her job is to be a critical connection point for her human, so Sadie’s interactions with people need to be purposeful rather than simply attention seeking. She’s supportive, a good listener, and is learning to detect complex human emotions.
Explain why working in an office environment is important to Sadie’s training.
KZ: Restoring independence and quality of life for our veterans is critical—including getting them back into the workforce. Coming to the office introduced Sadie to the routine of a typical workday. She’s learned important tasks like remaining quiet during meetings, opening ADA-operated doors, safely using elevators, retrieving dropped items, paying cashiers, and carrying things to and from the office.
How does Booz Allen empower you inside and outside the firm?
Megan: What are the things that we love, that motivate us, that give us energy and purpose? Mine are the poignant memories of a stroke patient moving their fingers for the first time while volunteering with my therapy dog Willow or seeing a person with a disability out in public with their independence restored by the assistance of a service dog. My motto is medicine heals the body; dogs heal the soul. It’s easy to bring your best self to work when Booz Allen creates the environment for you to complete the most meaningful of all projects—your passion project.
Finish this sentence: I’m changing the world by…
KZ: Helping Sadie fulfill her higher purpose to better the life of a fellow human being.