The seven-month-old Hercules looks like a typical puppy, except for one brown eye and the other, strikingly blue. But that’s where the similarities end for this Baldwin Harbor boxer.
When the 47-pound energy ball is fully grown, its life mission will extend far beyond endless treats and naps at the foot of its owner’s bed. Hercules, who is in training to become the service dog of Afghanistan war veteran Ali Bardeguez, will recognize the Marine sergeant’s nightmares when he hears them and wakes her up.
Bardeguez and Hercules are currently going through approximately 18 months of training through Paws of War, based in Nesconset. The nonprofit trains and places service dogs with military veterans suffering the emotional and physical effects of war, the website says.
“The company helps,” said Bardeguez, whose current service dog, another boxer, 6-year-old Evangeline, is soon to retire.
“When you come home from a long day and there’s just a really overly happy animal to see you… you have something that will be there and make you feel better,” Bardeguez said.
According to its website, Paws of War has been supplying assistance dogs to veterinarians since 2014. Training the animals is not cheap. Costs can range from $7,500 to $20,000, said co-founder Robert Misseri.
Nicole Schwartz, a real estate agent at RE/MAX in Smithtown, will cover the cost of the program for Bardeguez and Hercules. Schwartz, who first met the couple Monday morning, said she was inspired to give to charity because of her mission.
“Our veterans give everything for us, they go out and serve our country to protect our freedom,” she said. “What could be better than giving back to the people who make and keep our country great.”
A Department of Veterans Affairs study released earlier this year found that both service animals and emotional support animals help relieve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, with more significant results in animals associated with service dogs. According to the VA, about 11% to 20% of veterans who served in the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq have PTSD in any given year.
Unlike emotional support animals, public facilities generally must allow trained service dogs with their owners, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In August, President Joe Biden signed into law the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act, also known as the PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act., who instructed the Office of Veterans Affairs to implement a five-year pilot program to provide dog training to eligible veterans with PTSD.
Paws of War can teach any breed — from a small Pekingese to a sturdy Rottweiler — the lessons it takes to become a service dog, Misseri said. Veterans often find a community in the Smithtown Boulevard center where they gather in regular classes taught by instructors paid by the nonprofit.
The response from the 400 veterans Paws of War has helped is the clearest example of the program’s success, Misseri said.
“It’s really worth it when you get that phone call and a veteran’s parent or spouse says, ‘You have no idea what you’ve done for this family,'” Misseri said. “Then you know it really works.”
Bardeguez, who has served in the Marine Corps for 15 years, plans to retire soon and continue her civilian job in the Con Edison emergency department.
During training, Bardeguez will take Evangeline out of the service role as Hercules learns the trade one freeze-dried chicken liver treat at a time. The plan is for Evangeline to become a therapy dog for others as she retires into the care of Bardeguez.
Like their owners, animals still need a purpose when their military service comes to an end.
“It’s the perfect job for her,” Bardeguez said of Evangeline. “I don’t want her to lose her purpose completely so she has something to do.”