Hooch has faced some horrors as an abused French mastiff who was once starving after his tongue was removed to ready him for the illegal world of fighting dogs.
But those dark days are gone as he now not only serves as a therapy dog, he’s the new American Hero Dog of 2016.
That honor was bestowed on Hooch Saturday night at the sixth annual American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards at The Beverly Hilton. He managed to edge out other canine heroes, including a pooch that saved a hearing-impaired handler from an oncoming train and another that helped capture the Boston Marathon bomber.
Hooch was starving, dehydrated and severely malnourished when he was in a shelter in Bakersfield, refusing to eat or drink, instead thrashing his food and water bowls around like a “maniac,” according to an official with the American Humane Association.
An examination by a veterinarian determined Hooch’s tongue had been removed at its base, likely in an attempt to prime him for the role of a bait dog in dog fighting. Hooch took well to hand-feeding and now works with autistic, abused and special needs children.
The winner from the field of eight finalists was determined by a combination of votes cast by the public and a panel of judges that included television personalities Lisa Vanderpump and Adrienne Maloof and actress Bailee Madison.
All eight finalists’ human companions — usually called “owners” — received $2,500 for their charity chosen among the awards’ 32 charity partners. Hooch, who lives in Kern County mountain town of Tehachapi near Bakersfield, earned an additional $5,000 for charity.
The other finalists, who were also each selected as the leading Hero Dog in their categories, were:
— Judge, a 7-year-old Labrador retriever who has been an arson dog with the Allentown (Pennsylvania) Fire Department since early 2011. He has worked more than 275 fire scenes with evidence he has found leading to multiple criminal arrests and civil penalties for insurance fraud cases.
Judge has also participated in more than 500 fire safety programs and demonstrations for crime watch groups, specialty dog shows, elementary and high school programs.
Judge is now part of a pilot program providing lifesaving information to autistic children.
— Hook is a hearing dog from Sacramento who kept his handler from being struck by a train three years ago. Hook’s handler is a family therapist, with Hook sitting beside her chair while she listens to patients.
“The amazing thing about Hook is he is not only sensitive to my needs, but to the needs of others,” the handler said. “When he sees a patient in distress or crying he will leave our chair, go sit in the patient’s lap and lick their tears. He has brought smiles to many children, teens and adults in our practice.
“Hook is everyone’s hero, not just mine.”
— K-9 Roo is a ballistics and bomb dog with the Boston Police Department and the finalist in the law enforcement dogs category. He has recovered 12 firearms, including three used in homicides and more than 300 shell casings involved in shootings.
K-9 Roo searched Boylston Street after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, looking for secondary devices amid the carnage. He was in Watertown the night of the shootout and was the only Boston Police Department dog present for the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicted in 2015 of committing the bombing.
K-9 Roo searched the yard Tsarnaev was captured in immediately after to ensure Tsarnaev did not plant any improvised explosive devices to kill responding officers. He has performed dignitary protection for President Barack Obama and foreign heads of state.
— Layka, the finalist in the military dogs category, was part of an assault on an enemy compound in a village in Afghanistan, searching for injured or live combatants and explosives. She engaged an enemy combatant while taking four rounds from an AK-47 to the right shoulder area.
— Kobuk, a certified search and rescue dog from York, Maine, is the finalist in the search and rescue dogs category. He is a member of the Maine Search & Rescue Dogs team. He located a 77-year-old diabetic with dementia, who had been missing for two nights in the Maine woods without food, water, or her medications.
— Gander, the finalist in the service dogs category, has traveled to 36 states to encourage education and awareness for post-traumatic stress disorder, veteran suicide, service dogs and persons with visible and invisible disabilities.
— Mango was homeless, hit by a car, and scheduled to be euthanized when she was rescued. She is part of Emma’s Rescue Reserve, a program created to place paralyzed dogs with owners to work with disabled veterans to show them that if a small dog in a wheelchair can overcome her handicap, then can too.
Mango is also part of a fundraising effort which has purchased more than 150 custom-built wheelchairs to help other animals regain their ability to be mobile again, including other dogs, cats, a pig and mini-horse.
Actor James Denton and television personality Beth Stern hosted the ceremony which will be shown Oct. 28 on Hallmark Channel.
— City News Service