NEW YORK (AP) — The human nearly lost his life to drug and alcohol addiction. The dog, well, he nearly lost his life to humans.
A French mastiff named Hooch, rescued by Zach Skow in Tehachapi, California, is the 2016 American Humane organization's Hero Dog of the Year, bestowed in a Beverly Hills ceremony taped in September for broadcast at 8 p.m. EDT Friday on the Hallmark Channel.
Hooch, among eight canine finalists, wore his best tuxedo collar, though he was reluctant to join Skow on stage.
Hosted by James Denton and Beth Stern, and featuring Dave Foley, Kym Johnson, Robert Herjavec, Marilu Henner and Greg Louganis, among other celebrities, this is the sixth year for the awards.
The finalists come in all shapes and sizes — and all were honored for the work they do. Some protect the vulnerable and comfort the sick. Others assist police, military veterans and rescue the lost.
Hooch, on the other hand, was nominated for surviving — and he was No. 1.
He was the "emerging hero dog," having been rescued about three years ago with the help of Skow, founder and operator of Marley's Mutts Dog Rescue in Tehachapi. Skow said the rescue goes the other way around as well.
Skow, from age 16 to 28, when he nearly died of liver failure, is a recovering addict, about eight years sober. As part of his rehabilitation, he went into dog rescue.
"Hooch has helped me stay in the moment — not only in the moment, but out of my head," Skow explained in a recent interview. "I need to be thinking about something other than me."
He calls the dogs he rescues his "hope." As for Hooch, he received a call one day from a local animal control officer about an ailing French mastiff who was emaciated, had a broken tail and had recently had his ears badly cropped. The dog refused to eat, instead batting his bowls around wildly.
Skow thought something was wrong with Hooch's jaw. When the dog was checked by a veterinarian, they discovered that his tongue had been maliciously cut off at the base, possibly to stop excessive barking or use him as "bait" to train fighting dogs.
The copper-colored Hooch can't chew and drools profusely. Skow had to figure out how to feed him. Hooch pulled out a feeding tube. Skow then found that softening dry food with hot water and putting it straight down Hooch's mouth worked, and the dog slowly regained his health.
Now, Hooch spends some of his time with non-verbal autistic kids, calming them as they learn social skills. Remarkably, Hooch trusts people, though loud noises like the cheering he received on the night of his big win tend to shut him down.
"He has every reason to mistrust every person he comes across and that has never crossed his mind," Skow said. "He exudes happiness."
The first spoken word for some of the autistic kids the two meet is "Hooch," added Skow, who is now 37.
Hooch does other work as well, as a companion to women in shelters who have been victims of domestic abuse, for instance.
"Everyone called for us to euthanize him," Skow said. "No one could fathom that he would have a good quality of life. He's a testament to all of those dogs that don't have a chance, that don't have hope. That's exactly what I was."
The other seven finalists for Hero Dog, all honored for their service, are:
— Law enforcement: Edo, a K-9 superstar with the Los Angeles Police Department, and handler Nhut Huynh. Edo, a Belgian malinois, was the first sent into a house where a shootout was underway. He pulled the armed man away from his weapon.
— Search and rescue: Kobuk, a German shepherd, and handler Elizabeth Fossett in York, Maine. He sniffed out an elderly woman with diabetes and dementia after she wandered off from a cabin in the wilderness.
— Service: Gander, a labradoodle rescue, and handler Lon Hodge. Hodge is an Army veteran in Great Lakes, Illinois, who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and was once homebound for months at a time. The two are inseparable and travel the country helping others with disabilities. "Thank you for saving my life," Hodge told his beloved Gander on the show.
— Military: Layka, another Belgian malinois, and trainer/veteran Julian McDonald in Galena, Kansas. The dog lost a leg when she took fire while McDonald's Ranger unit was assaulting an enemy compound in Afghanistan. McDonald and his family adopted Layka.
— Arson: Judge and handler Lee Laubach Jr., fire chief in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Judge is a yellow Labrador who has worked more than 275 fire scenes and has found evidence leading to multiple arrests and civil penalties for insurance fraud.
— Hearing: Hook, a 12-pound, 10-year-old Chihuahua mix, and handler Joyce Herman. Herman, from Sacramento, California, is a hearing-impaired marriage and family therapist. He pulled Herman off some light train tracks as a train approached and once chased away a prowler in her office waiting room.
— Therapy: Mango, a paralyzed Cairn terrier rescue, and handler Judy Walter, a veteran in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Both dog and human had broken their backs. Mango uses a canine wheelchair to get around. "I healed her and she healed me," said Walter, who now routinely visits disabled vets with Mango.
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