Monday, February 13, 2017

About Us

Hero Labradors: Genesis

I am a retired soldier.  On 21 June 2005, I was wounded by a roadside bomb while on a foot patrol in Baqubah, Iraq.  I lost part of my left hand, full use of both hands, my eardrums, and large patches of skin on my legs and arms.  The list of injuries is far longer, but to tell you how bad it was, I died twice on the way to Walter Reed.  I spent many months in the hospital trying to get well enough to return to duty, which I eventually did, and went on to serve an additional 10 years, retiring in January of 2015.

In 2006, my spouse bought me a Labrador retriever as a present when I was promoted to Major.  She had my Brother in Law pick him out.  David is an extremely gifted dog trainer who works in Jeffersonville, Indiana, at Duffy's Dog Training Center.  He selected my dog from a litter based on the dog;s aptitude for learning, and because he could see that the dog was going to be an absolute tank--strong and able to help me with anything I could imagine.  I let my two kids name the dog, and they chose "Major" honoring my recent promotion.

For the next year, Major and I bonded over daily walks (which we BOTH had to do, as I was still in physical therapy) and through learning both good house behaviors as well as good canine citizen behaviors.  Major also took up his own tasks, which I didn't realize he was doing for some time. Major would brace me going up and down stairs, always staying by my side and giving me an anchor (I get "wobbly" sometimes, because my ears/balance ain't what they used to be) in case I lost my balance.  He would force me to give him attention, when I was getting upset or angry., just by sitting in front of me and putting his head in my lap.  Major would find ways and means of taking care of me--by retrieving things I'd dropped; by guarding me at night and giving me a feeling of safety, by waking me up when I was having nightmares.  Some of this was trained behaviors, and some of it he just did.  We had a very, very special bond.

Major became, most accidentally, my first service dog.

Major and I were together through thick and thin, until the Army forced us apart--I received orders to deploy to Afghanistan in 2011.  While I was there, my wife sent me a message on day near Christmas--"Honey, Major is sick, I need you to call me."  My heart sank, Carren has been with me through thick and thin, and KNOWS what rates a "call me ASAP" message when I am deployed... and none of those reasons mean something good.

I called as soon as I could.  Major was in the hospital.  His liver was failing.  He would need a liver transplant to survive, and that was not a guarantee.  Even if he did survive, he'd always be very weak, and would likely on live a few years.  A transplant would cost us over $10k, and just wasn't in the cards for us... I had to let him go.

When I returned home from deployment, I puttered around for a bit, worked and spent time with my family, but there was a huge hole in my life.  I searched my feelings and realized that not only did I miss Major, but that I was ready to begin again, selecting and training another service dog.  I found a Labrador Breeder who happened to have a litter ready, and we went for a visit.

Greeting the pups for the first time was a joy--eight little balls of floof, all SO excited to see me!  I gave many pets and got many licks.  One pup, a tubby little butterball girl, kept attacking my sandaled feet and chewing on my toes.  I'd pick her up and hold her, she'd calm down, I'd set her down to go be with her litter, and she'd be right back on my toes.  She made it pretty clear, She'd chosen me, and that was that.

We named her Halia.  I was stationed in Hawaii, and she was born on the Big Island, so we thought a Hawaiian name was appropriate.  Halia means "in memory of a loved one."  It seemed fitting, as the wound from losing Major was still so fresh, and I was going to become as close to her as I was to him.

Halia took to training like a Lab takes to water.  She learned to be an anchor, she learned how to behave in public, at work, around other dogs, at the airport and on and off lead.  She learned commands and stays absolutely focused on me, despite what is going on around her.  She's been on planes, trains, and in automobiles (she prefers golf carts.)  She's been in hospitals and churches and every other public space you can think of without incident.  She wakes me from bad dreams, cuddles (not as easy as you'd think with a 70 pound dog) when I'm down, and keeps me steady when I walk. She brings me things--mostly to see if I'll throw them for her.  She even swims with me--including going down a waterslide that almost got us kicked out of the pool at a resort... but we had fun!

When the time came to retire from the Army, I had to consider what I was going to do with the rest of my life.  Between my 22 year retirement and VA disability, I could afford a mortgage and keep the kids fed and clothed, and if Carren doesn't work (she's a social worker) she kind of goes a little crazy... likely from too much exposure to me.  I thought about my post-Army life and I had an epiphany:  What I really, truly wanted to do was breed labradors.  I didn't want to breed them to become the world's next AKC Champion breeder, or to breed them to win Hunting and Field trials, but to breed them for a singular purpose:  to serve as service dogs.

You see, not every dog has the aptitude for service dog training.  Not every dog has the drive, the focus, or even the intelligence.  (Trust me, I have a black lab named "Tonto" who is, for all intents and purposes, dumb as paste.  Many service dog programs go to animal rescues and shelters looking for dogs that can become service dogs, but it's fairly rare they find the dogs they need.

That was the genesis for Hero Labradors.  I am breeding Labradors, and selecting for qualities and traits specifically for service.  While a show breeder is selecting for conformation--coat, head size, color, height, etc., and a field breeder is selecting for prey drive, athleticism, and long legs/narrower body, a service dog has different needs.

Service dogs need intelligence, they need focus and a desire to serve and learn.  You can't train them with harsh methods to do their service, they have to WANT to please.  They can't be alpha dogs, because they have to take cues from their handler.  They can't be Omegas either, because they need to assert themselves when it's required.  Service dogs need to be Betas: They submit to their handler, but no one else (when working) and are confident and assured in new surroundings.  They take things as they come, but are still vigilant and watchful over their handler.

So I looked.  I looked for service dog breeding programs and I found... nothing.  I found many breeders who would donate to training programs, and many training programs who would train dogs for Wounded/Disabled veterans and first responders, but I looked high and low and couldn't find any breeders who were selecting for the exact traits that a service dog needs to possess at a very early age.
So I decided if it wasn't happening, I was going to make it happen.  I've had to relearn how to walk, how hard can it be compared to that?

Well... If it was easy, everybody'd be doing it.  I am lucky.  Halia's breeder put me in touch with a breeder on the East coast who helped me select a male for breeding, based on his personality traits.  We tried and came up empty, the insemination didn't take.  Next heat came, and... success!  Halia gave birth to a girl and three boys.  Hopefully one of them would have "the right stuff" to be a service dog.

Well... good news and bad.  The girl didn't survive past 48 hours.  it happens sometimes.  Sad, but goes with the territory.  The boys, on the other hand...

At 8 weeks we had them evaluated for aptitude to become service dogs.  ALL THREE passed!  the rarity of a 100% success rate in a litter is staggering.  I should've bought a lottery ticked the day Halia was impregnated.  We decided to put two into training programs, and the third one, which we named Polar Bear, we kept.

We'd planned to keep a boy for some time, and we've also found him a mate--Nani Lelani (Beautiful Flower.) Nani is just a few months older than Polar Bear, and we're expecting very good things from the two of them in a few years.

We are producing QUALITY, genetically sound, AKC registered Labradors with AKC Champion bloodlines.  We select, raise, and breed our girls (and one boy) to produce very high quality pups. Even then, we realize that not all of these dogs are going to become service dogs, but even those dogs will make phenomenal pets for loving families.  Dogs of this caliber easily sell for $2500 (or more, if I got some champion letters behind Halia's name.)  So naturally, we select service dog training programs worthy of our dogs--and we give these dogs to them, free of charge, with only their guarantee that they train them and donate them to either a disabled veteran, wounded warrior, or first responder (or their family members) who need them.  It costs training programs NOTHING to receive one of our pups.  Hero labradors has zero paid employees, we're all volunteers.

Service Dogs for those who've served.

--Chuck

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Why do quality dogs cost so much?

Lots of work ahead, that's for certain.

I'm working on a GoFundMe to raise starting and operating capital to actually make this venture go from a guy with a good idea to a fully fledged organization that will serve the disabled veteran/wounded warrior/military and first responder community.  (Well, we already started, and have donated two pups, but I bore the total costs for that, and folks, it ain't cheap.)

I'll provide a breakdown of everything that goes into breeding *good* dogs for you, just to give you an idea.

First, you need a bitch.  Not just any girl in heat will do, either.  What you need is a dog with a great lineage, so you know what kind of genes you're dealing with.

Then you need to make sure she's healthy.  That means more than a trip to the vet to ensure she's able to bear pups without killing her.
You need to ensure she has good hips and elbows, so that you aren't passing on dysplasia.
Then you need her annual eye exam, to ensure there's no signs of eye problems because you don't want to pass that along.

You're going to require these things of the sire, too.  (If you're using your own or from someone else's dog.)
So now you're in for about $1000.

But wait!  There's more!
You've set up the deal for fresh chilled semen to be shipped to you because the breeder is 1500 miles away, and an amorous rendezvous isn't in the cards for your dog.  Even if your stud is right next door, and you're trying natural, you're not saving much beyond shipping costs and insemination costs.

About selecting a breeder--you're looking for an AKC registered/certified Breeder of merit.  These are breeders who ENSURE they are not damaging the breed, not passing along bad DNA, and raise healthy dogs.  I'm not one--yet.  It takes a minimum of five years of breeding right before you can become one.

And naturally, you need his and her DNA test done, because you're going to make sure there's nothing hiding in the woodpile that'll get passed on (or that the likelihood is very small.)  Here's what labs should be tested for:
So now you're looking at being in for about $1500.  And your dog isn't even pregnant!

You got your tests all did.  You had your results checked, registered, and verified.  You've balanced the DNA profile of your sire and dam.  Now you just have to get her knocked up!

Hang on to your hats, folks, Chilled fresh semen costs about $1500.  (NOT including shipping--another $120)
Then it's get the dog in the right place, at the right time, for insemination.  So you can't just guess, you have to KNOW when she's ready.  This is done with progesterone tests, a blood draw that checks her hormone levels to make sure she's in the zone and actually ovulating.  These are $50 a pop, and you need (usually) three to get a baseline and best time narrowed down.  Add $200 for these.

We've arrived at the vet.  All tests are done, our Mom to be is ready to go, the FedEx guy just showed up, and the vet is ready.  Total costs to get us here:  $1800

But wait, there's more!

Now you have a choice to make:  regular "squirt it in and hope for the best" insemination, or TransCervical Insemination. (TCI) Since we're not much into spray and pray, we go for TCI.  it's only $150...

Now we wait.  It's going to take a month to see if your girl has buns in the oven, and that means an ultrasound, to the tune of $75  

To this point, you've spent over $2000.  And, if you're as lucky as I am, the first time you tried it, you came up snake eyes.  No dice, try again player 1.  Halia didn't have any puppies.

There's some good news though.  Breeders will usually allow you to rebreed at the next cycle if you have less than 2 viable pups in a litter.  So you aren't going to have to pay for the sample again, or the DNA profile again.  You will have to pay for an annual eye exam, and normal vet care, and another round of  progesterone tests, TCI, ultrasounds, and (if she does get pregnant, x-rays to ensure there is good orientation, size, and get a headcount.  That usually works out to about $700.

So... I figure just to get the litter we had in August, it cost about $3000.  This litter produced three viable pups, and of those pups, two are now in service dog programs.  

I now need to wait a year for Halia to be ready, and I need to get Nani and Pete's DNA tested to ensure they are healthy and simpatico to make puppies, and they'll be ready in 2018.

--Chuck

Sunday, January 1, 2017

501c3 status confirmed!

The good:
IRS confirmed we are a charity!
Set up PayPal to accept donations!
Filled out request through T-mobile for equipment and bandwidth grant to bring more and better content and raise awareness!

The bad:
Need to set up a checking account with an actual bank to receive funds.  Going to Wells Fargo tomorrow.
Tried to e-file taxes for 2016.  IRS is offline through the 8th.  (It's literally a postcard though, so I don't forecast any issues.)
Need to wrangle with the state to alleviate us from the franchise tax (since we're a nonprofit.)

Ugh... paperwork. I just want to raise dogs for wounded warriors!

Thanks to Mark and Ricky for guiding me through the paperwork, and to Patti for so much advice. (And for recording our first donation!)

The very, very good (I know, burying the lede)
On the 3rd I'm making a 1800-mile round trip to deliver Pete to Dogs Helping Heroes in Jeffersonville, Indiana.  That's 66% of the litter going to be serving our wounded warriors and disabled veterans, with NO COST to them or the training programs for the dogs.  (I'm keeping 1 pup to continue to breed.)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

News and Updates

Been very busy lately.

Pete needed eyelid surgery for Entropion.  
Entropion is a genetic condition in which a portion of the eyelid is inverted or folded inward. This can cause an eyelash or hair to irritate and scratch the surface of the eye, leading to corneal ulceration or perforation. It can also cause dark-colored scar tissue to build up over the wound (pigmentary keratitis). These factors may cause a decrease or loss of vision.

Basically, his eyelids were partly curled in on the bottom, and the lashes were rubbing his eyes, which made them weepy.  The corrective surgery is pretty straight forward, and aside from him needing the cone of shame for a while, and looking REALLY sad, he's fine.

Pete was cared for by the EXCELLENT staff and Veterinarians at the Decatur Pet Health Center.  They are my go-to for all dog health needs, and always take the time to dumb-down the explanations so I can understand them. 😊  


First dog accepted for service dog training.
Our beloved Fuzzy Butt is off to enter service dog training!  In keeping with our mission to produce quality Labradors for service dogs for wounded warriors, yesterday we were paid a visit by Cheryl from Patriot Paws. She assessed Fuzzy and was very impressed with his focus, and his aptitude seemed perfect for the job.  Fuzzy was donated directly to Patriot Paws and will hopefully complete his training in a year or so and become a service dog.

Fuzzy (right) shows his focus

Formed Hero Labradors in TX
I filed our formation documents as a State NonProfit.  This document lays out the purpose of Hero Labradors and our Board.  Once I hear back from the Texas Secretary of State, I can then apply for an EIN and file with the IRS for 501(c)3 recognition.  You'd think this is an easy process, but I've needed several emails and calls to a very trusted lawyer friend who basically told me "I love the concept, but let me do the paperwork."  (Which is a nice way of saying "You have no idea what you're doing, go color while the experts deal with the laws."  I'm down with that.  Part of being a good leader is knowing when you are way out of your depth, asking for and accepting help from experts.  He also mentioned that 'Now I can tell people I've had a conversation with Chuck Ziegenfuss about dog semen."  To which I replied "Well, that pool isn't as small as you'd think!"  

That's all for this update, more to come, and more puppy pictures soon!

--Chuck

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Play, or food?

Momma (Halia, or more formally CastleCary's Halia Kona) plays with a ball while her 4-week old pups dive in for a snack.

So I'm trying to do this on Facebook, too...

So I'm trying to do this on Facebook, too...

I am a wounded warrior. A service dog helped me immensely in my recovery, and has continued to help me live a normal life. One of the things instilled in me during my years of service was a dedication to a lifetime of service to our nation. To that end, I am starting Hero Labradors.
Hero Labradors has a simple goal: I am breeding AKC registered Labrador retrievers to serve our wounded veterans.
There are many wounded and disabled service members who could benefit from a service dog. There are many charities that train and provide these dogs for free to veterans. The kink in the pipeline is the dogs. Not every dog has the temperament or aptitude to be a service dog.
So, my premise is simple: If a dog line can be bred from good hunters to produce dogs with great hunting drive, or a line can be bred to produce dogs with great show lines, why not try to breed dogs to produce the qualities that are common in service dogs?
The Labrador retriever is my choice for several reasons--
1. I personally have owned two Labrador service dogs, and have owned many Labrador pets throughout my life. I love the breed and find them not only great companions, but also readily trainable.
2. They possess the right body type and weight to assist full grown adults with many mobility and stability issues.
3. They are handily America's favorite dog breed
4. They have a great and friendly temperament in general, are very good with kids, strangers, and other dogs
5. They usually bond rapidly with their owner, and readily focus on them and their needs
6. They tend to have large litters (6-10 pups) meaning there is a greater chance of producing dogs with service aptitude
There are a multitude of other reasons (too many to list!) but I want to fill a niche that I have not seen filled: a breeder with a primary goal of breeding aptitude for service, and (importantly) providing these dogs free to charities that will in turn pair them with a wounded warrior, train them to meet the warrior's needs, and then donate the dog to the wounded warrior.
Normally, an AKC lab from the lines I breed would run upwards of $2500 per pup. I take care of feeding, vaccinations, weaning, rearing, and housing these pups until they are donated or (for the ones who don't make the cut for service dogs) sold as pets. This endeavor isn't a cheap one, but it's a labor of love. I am exploring setting this up as an LLC and a non-profit, more to follow on that; right now, I believe that the best thing is to focus on the dogs and on spreading the word that this program exists.
I had a litter (only three pups) in August, of these, one has been accepted as a service dog by Dogs Helping Heroes, another is soon to be evaluated for service, and #3 is going to stay with me to continue the breeding line.
How can you help? Share this with your friends and let people know we're out here.