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Pups with purpose

A USPS employee and his dog-whisperer wife help veterans get a new leash on life

Cynthia Bahneman Herman and Jeff Herman stand with Dory, a service dog they are training.
Cynthia Bahneman Herman and Jeff Herman stand with Dory, a service dog they are training.

If happiness is a warm puppy, Jeff Herman’s workdays are bookended by joy.

Before and after his shifts, the Warrendale, PA, lead mail processing clerk serves as puppy wrangler for Von Bahneman Kennels and K9 Training, his wife’s dog training and breeding business outside Pittsburgh.

Cynthia Bahneman Herman has run the business for decades. When they married eight years ago, Herman not only gained a spouse, he acquired a side gig — but he knew what he was in for.

“Her affection for animals was one of the many things that drew me to her,” Herman said. “Cyn is 100 percent passionate about them.”

Bahneman Herman’s specialty is raising and training puppies to become service dogs for veterans. Two years ago, she brought her method to Gunny’s Ridge, a sanctuary for veterans, first responders and people with disabilities, where she runs the K9 Service Dog Program.

Her approach matches veterans with the pups that best suit them and requires up to a two-year commitment, depending on the age of the puppy. Once a match is made, dogs are trained from an early age to imprint on the veteran, who must train regularly with their pup.

“At the end of the program, they have trained each other,” she said. “They’re completely bonded.”

Graduates are also required to attend follow-up sessions monthly. Not only do these meetings ensure grads keep up with their training, “it gives them a place to talk about problems with other vets who understand,” she said.

Maura Wahl, a member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard who returned from Afghanistan in 2012 and suffers from PTSD, is currently working toward her certification in the program.

A woman kneels next to a dog
Maura Wahl and her service dog, Cali

“Life changing” is how she describes it.

“I was walking up the hill and remember the veterans’ faces, and how happy they were,” Wahl said of her first encounter with the program. “I knew right then and there, even before meeting my dog, that it was exactly what I needed in my life.”

She has been floored by how attuned her pup, Cali, is to her. For example, Wahl suffers from recurring night terrors involving a bomber.

“Why is this guy licking my face?” she remembers thinking during a recent episode. It was Cali, of course, waking her from the nightmare. She is amazed that the dog could sense her distress while she was unconscious.

Bahneman Herman works with all sorts of pups and people — on Sundays alone, her company teaches 150 dogs and would-be trainers from all around the Pittsburgh area — but said her work with veterans is a way to “pay it forward.” Her son served in the U.S. Army Special Forces and “faced everything you could face” and survived, she said.

She is also grateful for her husband’s help. “He’s good with dogs and dogs love him. And it would be very difficult to do this alone. It really does take a village.”

As for Herman, there are definitely perks to his side gig.

Among his favorites? “Cuddle time,” he said.