Heroes need sidekicks, and Army Sgt. Clay Rankin's was just named 2009 Dog of the Year by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"I think it was well deserved," Rankin said after accepting the award in New York City on behalf of Archie, an 8-year-old black Lab who was trained in Rowlett. "I think he's Hero of the Year."
Rankin, who lives in West Virginia, suffered spinal injuries in Iraq. Archie, who has been his service dog for four years, helps him cope with the aftermath - post-traumatic stress disorder, physical challenges and difficulty with crowds.
Archie was the first canine graduate of the Army's Wounded Warriors program, known as AW2. Program advocates like Rankin help soldiers who are wounded, sick or injured.
That means a lot of traveling, a good bit of public speaking, and almost daily visits to ailing soldiers and veterans.
On a recent visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Archie got a smile out of a bedridden soldier, and the soldier's father cried. Rankin later learned it was the first time the young man had smiled since being injured.
"That was worth everything I've ever done in my life to get to that point," Rankin said.
ASPCA spokeswoman Anita Kelso Edson said Archie's loyalty and perseverance have helped Rankin "move forward with his life and continue serving the country he loves."
Lori Stevens of Patriot Paws in Rowlett trained Archie to perform a range of services, including getting help in an emergency, retrieving dropped items and even preparing food, in addition to providing physical and emotional support.
"We're very proud of that kiddo," she said. "Archie is a wonderful dog doing a great job and he deserves the award."
Stevens has a program with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to help women who are prison inmates learn to socialize future service dogs and to help the dogs begin to learn their trade.
"We hired our first offender in August," Stevens said. A woman who was released after serving time on a drug-related conviction has moved to Hunt County and is working at Patriot Paws.
From vets to inmates and beyond, the program is helping more people than Stevens originally imagined.
"It definitely grew," she said. "I was just going to train some dogs to help some vets."
There are 28 veterans with disabilities on the waiting list and 23 dogs in the program. It takes 18 months to two years to train a service dog.
The next canine graduation will be in January, after the hubbub of the holidays.
The dogs and vets are carefully paired.
"We want the best match for the dog as well as the person," Stevens said.
Patriot Paws is a nonprofit that relies heavily on donations, and transportation is at the top of the wish list now.
Stevens and her volunteers rotate canine trainees between Rowlett and the prison in Gatesville - a 300-mile round trip - as often as once a week.
"We could really use a van," Stevens said.