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Two pit bulls from South Jersey hoping to win American Hero Dog awards
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Two pit bulls from South Jersey hoping to win American Hero Dog awards


Two pit bulls from Millville are among 21 heroic hounds in the running to become the country’s top dog in the 2021 American Humane Hero Dog Awards.

According to the contest’s news release, the American Humane Hero Dog Awards honor “the best of our best friends” and bring attention to the life-saving power of the human-animal bond.

K-9 Hansel, a 4-year-old fire department arson dog, and Cole, a 4-year-old deaf therapy dog, were chosen to advance as semifinalists in the 11th annual awards program sponsored by the Lois Pope LIFE Foundation and to be televised as a two-hour special on Hallmark Channel this fall.

Hansel is entered in the law enforcement category. He was only 7 weeks old when he was seized from an alleged dog-fighting ring in Ontario, Canada. He never fought. He and 20 other pit bulls were slated for euthanasia, but after a 2-year-long battle with the Ontario courts, Hansel was transferred to the Dogs Playing for Life shelter in Florida. He was accepted into the Throw Away Dogs project as a potential working dog candidate for the program.

“The Millville Fire Department was looking for an accelerant detection K-9, and Hansel was a perfect fit,” said Millville Fire Marshal Tyler Van Leer, who has been Hansel’s handler for just over a year.

The two went through 16 weeks of scent training and were later certified as an arson detection team. Van Leer believes Hansel is the first pit bull certified in accelerant detection in the United States and can recognize 14 different ignitable liquid odors.

Since he’s been on the job, Hansel has been instrumental in helping prosecute two charges of arson.

“We are the super dynamic duo. He’s definitely making a positive impact in the community,” said Van Leer, who added Hansel has more than 1,600 followers on Instagram and a pretty strong Facebook following.

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Cole is entered in the therapy dog category.

Born deaf, he was deemed “broken” and passed up for months at a local shelter until he was adopted four years ago by music teacher Chris Hannah and trained through sign language.

Hannah said Cole may be deaf, but he’s helping people hear his message: A disability is not an inability, it’s a superpower. Hannah said the day he saw the little white puppy, “the stars aligned” and his life path was changed forever.

He sees Cole as an ambassador for special needs children and adults. As a therapy dog, he works every day alongside Hannah at Dr. William Mennies Elementary School in Vineland through a unique social-emotional learning program called the Team Cole Project.

Through his work in school and with traveling assemblies across the region, he empowers children to embrace their differences and inspires acts of acceptance, said Hannah.

Cole is also the official mascot and volunteers at the Vineland Veterans Memorial Home. Last summer, Cole and Hannah embarked on a statewide Kindness Tour, lifting the spirits of care facility residents and staff.

“I see his positive influence on kids and veterans every day,” said Hannah. “Because he is special needs, he has a connection with a lot of people.”

Both men said their dogs deserve to win. The public can visit through July 15 to vote once per day in each of the seven Hero Dog categories. The seven categories for 2021 are Therapy Dogs, Service Dogs, Military Dogs, Law Enforcement Dogs, Shelter Dogs, Search and Rescue Dogs, and Guide/Hearing Dogs. The winning dog in each category will take part in the nationally televised Hero Dog Awards this fall and will be celebrated at a special gala in their honor in Palm Beach, Florida, on Nov. 12.

“The Hero Dog Awards celebrate America’s often unsung heroes,” said Lois Pope, philanthropist and Platinum Presenting Sponsor. “From those who defend our country to those who help us heal, guide us, protect us and help find the lost, every single contender exemplifies the courage and heroism we seek to spotlight in this campaign. Our goal is not only to honor these magnificent dogs but to inspire America to reflect on the outsized contributions that animals make in our lives each and every day.”

Contact: 609-272-7295,

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Staff Writer

Coordinator of The Press' Hometown section. More than 30 years in newspapers covering news and writing feature stories about events in and about South Jersey.

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