FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — He is not your average therapist, but he is the best four-legged furry therapist in America, according to American Humane Hero Dog Awards voters — six-year-old Great Dane Maverick is the 2023 therapy dog of the year for his help comforting service members and their families through Fort Leonard Wood’s USO.
The annual, nationwide competition “searches out and recognizes America’s Hero Dogs — often ordinary dogs who do extraordinary things,” according to their website.
Kelly Brownfield, Maverick’s owner and the center manager at Fort Leonard Wood’s USO, said Maverick came into this world with a clear purpose, “to uplift the spirits of our American troops and their loved ones through his incredible work with the USO. Maverick possesses a remarkable ability to bring comfort to others with the simple touch of his paw.”
If Maverick were to stand, he would be over 6-feet tall — weighing in at 150-pounds, she said the Great Dane, “carries the weight of our nation’s heroes’ traumas, emotions and injuries, offering solace and comfort.”
According to the Hero Dog Awards website, to be eligible for this honor, the canine must be a credentialed animal-assisted therapy dog.
“Maverick is certified and tested through Alliance of Therapy Dogs, which doesn’t allow you to test until the dog is a year old. He passed with flying colors and hasn’t looked back since,” Brownfield said.
Maverick has completed 61 “sensitive requests” so far this year, with a total of 246 in his lifetime, according to Brownfield.
“Sensitive requests are requests outside of our normal scheduled USO canine activities. They are the requests we can’t always talk about, but it’s those requests that are sometimes the most important and impactful. Sensitive requests can range from escorting children to the burial of their loved one, to sitting with a service member on suicide watch, to being by the side of a victim as they give their statement, to sitting with our youngest of heroes, our military children, while they testify (in court),” Brownfield said.
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Rick Morris said he met Maverick several years ago while volunteering at the USO. Morris said Maverick, “knows when you need that big ol’ dog around you ... he knows the right time to come to you.”
Morris said after his nephew, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Rusten Smith, was killed in a training accident near Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in March, Brownfield and Maverick escorted their family on the day of the Soldier’s memorial service.
“Maverick was there for the kiddos. When they walked in, their sadness immediately was transformed to calm as they hugged on Maverick,” Morris said. “Maverick came right up to them. He knew they were hurting and that they just lost their daddy.”
Last week, when the winners were to be named, Brownfield and Maverick flew to New York City to be live on a major television network morning show for the announcement.
“Maverick did amazing. I was nervous leading up to the flight because Maverick has never flown,” Brownfield said. “I was very surprised to find out that he loved to watch out the airplane window during most of the flight, to include during take-off. He was fascinated and truly enjoyed his travels.”
A film crew from the American Humane Hero Dog Awards was on post Tuesday and Wednesday to document Maverick interacting with the Fort Leonard Wood community.
“I don’t think he realizes just how big of a deal he is, but maybe that’s because serving others comes so naturally to him and he loves every minute of it,” Brownfield said.
It’s not just Maverick who is deserving of the award, Brownfield added, it is those who make up Maverick’s story.
“They are the true heroes,” she said. “We are just humbled to be able to accept this award in their honor. Many look at Maverick’s vest; he has military patches and pins from all over the country. Each of those patches or pins has a story. Each item placed on his vest has been done so by someone who felt that Maverick made a difference in their life.”
Brownfield has two Great Danes that can often be seen at the USO and at events on post. She said keeping up with their special missions is a lot of work, but it is worth it.
“I have personally seen the impact just one moment can have on an individual, that one moment can change someone’s life forever and at time’s has saved lives. If the USO Canine Program has impacted just one person, if we have saved just one person, it has all been worth it,” Brownfield said. “I hope by sharing what we do, it inspires others to believe in the extraordinary abilities that animals possess and just maybe they, too, have a hero dog at home, waiting to share their talents with others.”
Anyone interested in learning more about the USO or the USO Canine Program should visit the USO website.