If Maverick, a 150-pound European Blue Great Dane, puts his paw on you, it might be because you need it.
“A sign of a good therapy dog is a dog that always wants to touch you,” said Maverick’s owner, Kelly Brownfield, who lives in Saint Robert, Mo., and is the manager at the Fort Leonard Wood United Service Organizations Club. “He just has a sense of knowing what people need.”
When service members die, Maverick escorts their children to their funerals, and he also visits with service members after unexpected deaths in their units. Each week, he spends time with students at schools, and focuses mostly on children struggling with their classes.
While Maverick can initially be intimidating given his size, “he is literally a gentle giant,” Brownfield said. “His whole aura about him is calming.”
Plus, “he is the perfect size for everything that we do. He is literally their rock; they can lean on him and he is there for them,” she added. “The one thing about this breed is that they have the heart to match.”
On Nov. 6, the 6-year-old gentle giant was selected from a group of hundreds of other dogs and named 2023 American Humane Hero Dog.
Five categories for American Humane’s Hero Dog Award: law enforcement and first responder dogs; service and guide or hearing dogs; therapy dogs; military dogs; and emerging hero and shelter dogs.
A winner for each category was chosen in September, then the five finalists went on to compete for the top Hero Dog title.
Maverick — who won the therapy dogs category, and beat the four other finalists, including service dog Moxie, Coast Guard K-9 Buda, emerging hero Raina and police dog Poppy — was selected by a panel of judges as the overall winner.
American Humane, a nonprofit animal welfare organization, is known for the “No Animals Were Harmed” certification it gives to film or television productions when animals are featured. The group has been awarding the Hero Dog designation since 2011 to pups that “make the world a kinder place,” said Robin Ganzert, the organization’s president and chief executive officer.
“Shining a spotlight on the four-legged heroes that live among us is part of that mission,” Ganzert said.
Rick Morris — who retired as a command sergeant major in 2006 after serving in the U.S. Army for 23 years — attended his nephew’s funeral in Saint James, Mo., in April, after his nephew, Rusten Smith, 32, was killed in a helicopter crash in March.
Smith had three children, and Maverick stood by their sides at Smith’s funeral.
“Maverick just knew that they needed to see him,” Morris said. “The kids clung onto him.”
Morris lives near the Fort Leonard Wood center, and often sees Maverick in action supporting military members.
“The weight and burden of whatever that soldier is dealing with at the time, I see it just disappear in the face of seeing Maverick,” Morris said. “They smile, they cheer, their face changes, their body changes.”
Maverick has also been an emotional support animal to Brownfield herself, as she has been battling B-cell lymphoma for six years. Brownfield is undergoing chemotherapy.
“I truly believe he knew before anyone else knew,” said Brownfield, 43, explaining that Maverick seemed especially clingy, touchy and protective in the months leading up to her diagnosis. “To have him there especially on the hard days has been just an amazing support.”
Maverick also faced a cancer diagnosis in 2022 and underwent a successful surgical procedure. He is now cancer-free.
Brownfield, whose father was in the U.S. Air Force and mother was a guidance counselor for the military school system overseas, grew up in the military community and became involved with the USO in 2009.
“I can combine my love for the military and my love for animals,” said Brownfield, who has another therapy dog, Apache, a 3-year-old Great Dane — weighing in at a whopping 240 pounds.
In 2016, Maverick came into her life, and right away “he just melted my heart,” she said. Brownfield has had therapy dogs before, and spent a year training Maverick, who passed his therapy dog certification in 2017. Since then, he has worked as a therapy dog with the USO.
The Fort Leonard Wood center was the first to start a pilot version of the USO Canine Program in 2012, and it launched around the world this year.
“With Maverick, service members and their families know they have a friend to turn to when they need it.” said J.D. Crouch, the USO’s chief executive officer and president.
One of Maverick’s strengths is sitting with elementary students who are having difficulty learning how to read.
“Maverick is not going to be there to judge you,” Brownfield said. “It lets the barrier down and allows them to thrive.”
While Maverick spends most of his time in Missouri, he occasionally travels around the country for work. He and Brownfield have completed hundreds of special mission requests over the years, some of which have been in the D.C. area.
On Oct. 4, Brownfield and Maverick were in D.C. for a week to spread awareness about USO’s therapy dog program. Maverick also spent time with families at the Fort Meade military base and escorted a few people to the gravesites of their loved ones at Arlington National Cemetery.
Having a therapy dog around, “can help change lives,” Brownfield said. “He senses the needs of every person.”
In celebration of Maverick’s 2023 American Humane Hero Dog title, Maverick and the other four finalists will head to Palm Beach, Fla., for an awards show, which will air on Thanksgiving Day and Nov. 26 on A&E.
“This is just an amazing way to showcase the good that animals can do,” said Brownfield.