HERNDON— Erik Skoog traveled for 29 hours straight from Afghanistan to Herndon so he could be reunited with a 7-year-old retired explosive detection dog on Friday.
The reunion with Len, a German Shephard who served in Afghanistan, was made possible by K9 Hero Haven, a nonprofit organization in Herndon that rescues retired military and service dogs, rehabilitates them and places them with combat veterans or retired police officers, and its founder Anne Gibbs. The dog and his handler have not seen each other in six months.
"I don't know what I would have done without her (Gibbs)," said Skoog, of Forked River, New Jersey. "I knew I had to keep him because he's so bonded with me. He's difficult and it had to be a professional, someone like Anne who knows these dogs."
Skoog retired as a police officer after 20 years and then started as an explosive detection handler, working as a civilian contractor with the U.S. military, in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2013. Len started training with Skoog at 17-months-old and then retired in July.
"I still had to go back to work," said Skoog. "I had to get another dog and find a place for him (Len). We've been together for 24 hours, seven days a week, for five to six years. To have to leave him, it broke my heart."
Skoog knew Gibbs because in December 2019 she also reunited him with 11-year-old Sleepy, a German Shephard and exploitative detection dog retired from Iraq. Skoog thought he would only be gone from Len for three months when he returned to Kabul, Afghanistan, but it turned out to be twice as long.
"I love this dog," said Skoog. "He's so special, he's so smart. He gave me 100 percent all the time. He passed his courses every time and never let me down. I don't want to leave him down. To see him again was bittersweet. I remember what it was like the last time I was here. I left here crying."
Skoog said Len will have a couch, a big yard and a koi pond that he can watch fishes swimming. He gets his pick of a side of the bed.
"He deserves to be spoiled, and eat bon-bons and watch TV," said Skoog.
Skoog and Len, share the same birthday, May 5. Skoog will turn 50 and Len will turn 7.
Gibbs said Len is a difficult dog who tends to have trust issues with strangers and has some aggression issues, so pairing Len with Skoog, his original handler, was important. It was also important for Len to be watched over by someone with experience, they said.
"It makes me feel good as a person to be able to give him that," said Gibbs. "He knows we've been doing that now for six years. It was great I could provide him a place to go. He could still go do his job and be at ease and not be worried about his dog over here."
Since 2015, K9 Hero Haven has placed more than 293 retired service, police and military dogs into new homes, 12 of which have been reunited with their original handlers, said Gibbs.
There are at least 2,800 active-duty service dogs in all branches of the military, police and border control, and approximately 300 of those canines retire each year to be adopted by their handlers or the public. At least 65 dogs have been killed in action in the past decade compared with 300 killed in the Vietnam War era, according to the U.S. War Dogs Association Inc.
K9 Hero Haven has 54 dogs, six of which are ready for adoption. For more information about K9 Hero Haven, visit k9herohaven.org or visit the Facebook page.