Your organization has a very specific name—can you talk about the idea of "independence" as a guiding principle for your mission and work?
WB: Independence means a lot of different things to the people we serve, from leaving the house alone for the first time to being able to return to work or go to school. At Canine Companions for Independence, we really pride ourselves on enhancing independence for adults and children living with disabilities by providing them with highly trained assistance dogs entirely free of charge. Since our founding in 1975 we've placed more than 5,200 dogs, including just over 175 dogs with U.S. veterans of foreign wars.
We train and place four different types of assistance dogs. We have service dogs for adults with physical disabilities. We have skilled companion dogs, which are generally placed with children, but sometimes with adults, when there's a need for another person to help handle the dog. Our hearing dogs serve deaf and hard-of-hearing adults. And lastly, we place facility dogs, who work alongside professionals in various settings, such as healthcare, courtroom, and educational environments to provide a variety of therapeutic benefits.
What are some of the specific tasks and services that your dogs perform?
WB: Canine Companions dogs are trained in more than 40 different commands, ranging from picking up dropped items as small as a dime or as big as prosthetic limb, pulling manual wheelchairs, turning lights on and off, opening doors, and so on. Our hearing dogs are trained to alert their handlers to specific sounds in the environment and then actually lead them to the source of the sound.
We also find that our skilled companion and facility dogs often serve as a social bridge for children who may otherwise feel cut off socially—these dogs just totally knock down those barriers, it's really transformational.
Let's talk about how you develop these dogs. Why does your breeding program specifically use Golden and Labrador Retrievers?
WB: We established our breeding program nearly 40 years ago, when we realized that Labradors and Goldens are, of course, excellent at retrieving items—an important skill for these kinds of assistance dogs—but also that they are very eager to please. So we can give these dogs a job that makes them incredibly happy and at the same time capitalize on the fact that they're very smart breeds, each with their own strengths.
So once you have a new litter of puppies, what happens next?
CK: I'm a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions—my family and I got involved back in 1995, and we've been raising puppies ever since! I receive a new puppy from Canine Companions when it's about 8 weeks old, and I'm responsible for it for the next 14-22 months. It lives in my home, I housetrain it, I introduce all basic commands, we attend weekly classes. And we do age-appropriate socialization—we go out to malls, to restaurants, anything I can think of that might possibly come up later in the puppy's working career. The puppy really becomes an extension of me—what's funny is, after all these years, now if I show up at the grocery store or bank without the dog, everyone wants to know, "Where's your puppy?"
It sounds like you really bond with the dogs...is it hard to give them up when this initial training period is over?
CK: When I get a puppy, I also get an estimated date for when I'll turn it back in to Canine Companions to go on to professional training, where it spends 6-9 months learning the advanced commands before being placed with a person. But yes, it's still very emotional—each time I turn a puppy in, I'm crying. But it's all OK, because it's not about me. It's about the whole journey, and knowing that this puppy will go on to serve a purpose for someone else. That I can be a part of that—it's just a wonderful thing.
How do you match Canine Companions to their human partners?
WB: We like to say there's a little bit of magic in how we do it! But practically speaking, we look at the dogs we have in professional training and assess their strengths to try to match to each person's needs—for example, does someone need a dog that will need to pick up really small things, or really bulky things. We also look at temperament of both the dog and the human, so, for instance, you don't end up matching someone with a very quiet lifestyle to a dog that's very energetic or outgoing.
With that careful matching, there's an instant connection when a dog is placed—but that bond just grows and grows the more the dog and person learn one another's needs. I have my own second service dog from Canine Companions, and I can say it truly feels like the dog becomes an extension of who you are.
How long is the typical working life of a Canine Companions dog?
WB: The dogs are placed with their partners at about 2 1/2 years old, and in general most work until age 10-12. But that's a decision that's really made on a case-by-case basis. Typically, graduates will start discussing a "retirement plan" with our training staff a couple years in advance, based on how the dog is doing, whether it's still motivated, healthy, meeting the client's needs. After retirement, each dog goes to a loving home—whether it's staying with their graduates if that's feasible, going back to their puppy raisers (who are often thrilled to welcome the dog back into their life!), or to someone on our long list of people eager to help a retired assistance dog live out its golden years.
So what is puppy "Merial" like, and where is she on her Canine Companions journey?
CK: Merial is my 16th Canine Companions puppy! She joined us last November and just turned a year old in September 2016. She's scheduled to go on to professional training in May of 2017. She's a very nice puppy! She's not laid-back exactly...but she's not excitable, she's a very stable puppy—so far, nothing seems to bother her. She's very attentive to me. Today in class we were working on her not anticipating a command, but rather waiting to hear exactly what I asked of her. And she was wonderful, listening to me every time!
How can people help support Canine Companions for Independence?
WB: It's great to be able to showcase our partnership with Merial—the company—through this great puppy that Cecilia's been raising. We're really excited about the support Merial has given us over the years. You know, each of our dogs require about a $50,000 investment to raise and train, but they're provided to recipients entirely free of charge. So every donation, whether from a company or an individual, is helping giving that gift of independence to a person with a disability.
CK: And as a volunteer, I just want to say that anybody can be a puppy raiser, and we always need them, so I want to encourage people to think about it. You don't have to be a professional trainer or need any experience—you just have to be willing to give your time and your love to these dogs. It is hard to give the puppy up, but when you see what these dogs do for other people, it's totally worthwhile.
TO GET INVOLVED...
For the 2016 holiday season, Merial is inviting people to give a Canine Companions dog a job—and give the gift of independence and loving companionship to veterans and other adults and children living with disabilities.
Learn more about the remarkable dogs of Canine Companion for Independence and the work of this inspiring organization at www.cci.org