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Puppy party highlights local program’s mission, need for puppy fosters

Puppies, puppies everywhere! 

Dozens of people came to the West Virginia University Animal Science Research, Education, and Outreach Center on Stewartstown Road Thursday morning for a fun-filled (and educational) puppy party with the latest litters of pups from WVU’s Hearts of Gold service dog training program. 

Hearts of Gold, established in 2006, is a collaborative effort between nonprofit group The Human Animal Bond and WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design that trains service dogs and then places them with veterans who have mobility or psychiatric disabilities. Two litters of puppies, 13 in total, joined the ranks of Hearts of Gold service dogs at the end of January.  

At the party, Hearts of Gold staff and volunteers monitored the event as the puppies and children in attendance delivered an overload of cuteness, playing together as organizers provided information about the program and their need for community fosters. 

The new puppies will eventually be a part of the group’s nearly 20-year track record of service animals but will need a place to stay and learn how to be a puppy, until they can begin intensive training. 

Margaret Kitt, executive director of The Human Animal Bond, explained that a loving home environment is what community fosters can provide during the first year. 

“The first year is just to get socialized, get some basic training, and learn how to be just a regular little puppy,” she said. 

Hearts of Gold provides everything the puppy might need in that first year including food, crates, leashes, harnesses, vaccines and other medical care. The caveat is after that first year, the pup will eventually move on to pursue their purpose. 

“You do have to relinquish the dog, which is kind of a hard thing to do when you get attached to a puppy,” Kitt said. “But when you think about the end goal and what these puppies are going to do, you know, it’s well worth it because some of these dogs then go on to be fully trained service dogs for veterans and it really changes their lives.” 

Community fosters will have to go through some basic obedience training provided by Hearts of Gold both online and in-person once a week, but the foster’s main job is to care for and socialize the puppies as much as possible and provide the foundation they need to move on to their training.  

Kaitlin Natarajan, who is currently fostering one of the 10-week-old puppies, said she wanted to get involved with the program because she has veterans in her family, and she knows how impactful the Hearts of Gold program can be. 

“I have the time to do it,” she said, “so if you have the time to do it and you have a place in your heart for veterans that have PTSD. And you get to play with a little puppy all day — it’s a no-brainer!” 

Natarajan said she loves having the puppy but is actively trying to stay ahead of the emotional impact of having to eventually let the dog go. 

“She’s mine right now, but I tell her ‘I respect you little girl, because you are going to go on to be a service dog,’” she said. “So, you don’t look at them as if they’re your own, but you treat them like they’re your own and you get to have this beautiful puppy and dog and go through this experience.” 

The experience of learning to train the puppy is also exciting for Natarajan. 

“I’ve never learned how to train a dog the way that they are training,” she said. “It’s almost like a show when you come to the obedience classes, because they show us another dog. So, you’re kind of pumped up when you get home you want to teach the dog — it’s been nothing but fun,” she said. 

“I’ve really done nothing other than love the puppy and take them out at night.” 

Hearts of Gold Founder Dr. Jean Meade said many of the dogs that have made it through the program have changed the lives of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) and other disabilities. 

She told the story of one veteran who had not been able to leave his home for several years, but upon receiving a dog, he had to leave the house to come to the Hearts of Gold facility for training, where he met other veterans and worked with his dog. 

“He now is traveling with his dog. He bought a car so he could carry his dog with him, and he is out and about and living a much-more-normal life now,” she said. 

Meade said they recently got a letter from another veteran who had received a Hearts of Gold dog about eight years ago. He wrote to say the dog had passed away but wanted to thank them because “Hearts of Gold had done more for him than anyone in his life.” 

“He said the dog had ridden beside him in ambulance rides, stood guard over him at doctor’s appointments and helped him through what he described as ‘the soul-crushing loneliness of PTSD and lonely nights,’” she said. 

Hearts of Gold still needs fosters for four of the puppies from the recent litters, but they also expect to have more pups born this summer and will need more fosters at that time. 

To learn more about the Hearts of Gold program, their work for veterans, and how you can help, visit their website Those interested in becoming a community foster for one of the puppies can e-mail Margaret Kitt at for more information. 

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