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Dogs for Independence

When Help is a Four-Legged Word

Dogs have always been our best friends. But for thousands of people with disabilities who depend on help from others, assistance dogs are transforming their lives. Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) is the oldest and most renowned provider of highly trained and skilled service dogs in the U.S. Founded in 1975 as a nonprofit, it provides their specially bred dogs free of charge to recipients. 

In 2014, 289 people with disabilities and their new canine partners graduated from their team training to begin a new life journey, up from 254 in 2013. 

This is made possible solely through contributions, corporate partnerships, fundraising events—and a passionate, committed army of volunteers nationwide. It takes a village, and this one is without equal.

The organization trains four types of assistance dogs: 

Service Dogs are partnered with adults with physical disabilities to assist them with daily tasks, such as retrieving items, opening doors and turning on lights.

Skilled Companion Dogs are trained to work with a child or adult with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism or Down’s syndrome, under the guidance of a caregiver who handles and cares for the dog. 

Hearing Dogs alert their human partners to key environmental sounds such as doorbells, telephone, voices or strange noises.

Facility Dogs are partnered with an adult who works in a health care, educational or other professional setting. They bring comfort and joy to those who are ill or frightened with their calming presence.

Recently, CCI has begun working with the Veterans Administration to provide assistance dogs to veterans with PTSD. 

Puppies

It all starts with the puppies. But not just any puppies.

Canine Companions breeds its own Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and Lab/Goldie crosses to become assistance dogs. Breeder dogs are chosen after an intense evaluation process to determine the best ones for breeding. “Selection includes factors like temperament, physical characteristics and blood lines, says Paul O’Brien, Colorado Office Director. “A full-time staff manages the breeding program.”

reeding takes place at CCI’s national headquarters on the Jean and Charles Schulz (yes, that Charles Schulz) campus in Santa Rosa, California, and volunteer breeder caretakers must live within 95 miles of the facility. Caretakers of female breeders also nurture the litters during their first eight weeks of life.

After that, the adorable offspring are sent to volunteer puppy raisers around the country, who are thrilled to lovingly care for and train them at their expense until they’re about 18 months old. This includes food, veterinary care and obedience classes. Did we mention love?

Leslie Hennessy, Ph.D., a member of CCI’s national and southwest regional Board of Directors, is also a puppy raiser, and is currently raising her thirteenth puppy. Hennessy, who divides her time between Colorado Springs and San Diego, first learned about CCI in 1998. “I loved the mission and loved the idea of contributing to it through puppy raising,” she says. 

Training

Then comes the hard part—giving up the puppy after 18 months, and returning it to CCI for advanced training. There they will spend six to nine months learning to be service dogs and mastering up to 50 commands. During that time, they live in a state-of-the-art kennel at one of CCI’s six training centers. 

Not all become service dogs. Only 40 percent make it to the finals and graduate with a recipient. Those that are released from the program are usually adopted back by their puppy raisers, and often go on to other forms of service.

Making the Perfect Match

Applying for a CCI dog is a complex process. People who are selected must attend a two-week team training class on how to effectively work with and care for their assistance dog. This matching is based on a detailed analysis of not only what the dog can do, but also on the lifestyle, activities and needs of the recipient. 

For Paralympic cyclist, Billy Lister,  “My life changed instantaneously when Potter came into it,” he says of his CCI Labrador Retriever, with whom he graduated from advanced training in February 2014 in Oceanside, California. “Every day with him is a new adventure.” 

A resident athlete at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, Lister has two national track championship jerseys. And this June 2015, he competed against the world’s best para-cyclists at the UCI (International Cycling Union) Para-cycling Road World Cups in Maniago, Italy and Yverdon-Les-Baines, Switzerland. Potter was there, too.

Lister has only the functional use of his right side, and Potter has made all the difference in making life easier. The big yellow Lab takes the stress off his arm and hand by carrying gym bags, opening doors, and pushing elevator buttons. And he gives him protection and stability when walking through crowded public areas. “My life as part of CCI and with Potter has been nothing short of revelatory. And I couldn’t be happier or more grateful.”

Some angels have wings. Others have tails. 

For more information: Canine Companions for Independence, Paul O’Brien, Director, Colorado Office, 126 E. Las Animas St. Colorado Springs, CO 80903, 719-260-6151, www.cci.org