Trapped in his wheelchair, Walt (no real names here) is quiet during the daylong event. He acknowledges no one, not even his wife who regularly places her folding chair back and to the left of his transport when we sit for lectures. As the group travels around the buildings and grounds, Walt is always hiding mid-pack. He asks no questions; seeks no clarification.
Near the end of the day, each of us is paired with a young dog whom we are to take through their paces (“sit,” “down,” “let’s go”) and correct them (“don’t; sit”) when they are not responsive. Silently rolling to the front of the room, Walt grabs ahold of his dog’s leash. It’s as if he’s opened a box, peered inside, and found his fifth birthday party: Walt’s joy fills the room. Looking down at his dog he commands, “Francisco, sit” and Francisco does. “Good boy” croons Walt to the black Labrador who is now looking at Walt as if he were cheese-studded bacon, “Good job.”
As part of our ongoing search for “that which will calm our daughter” we discovered assistance or service dogs. “Service dog” is a general term for a dog trained to do a specific set of tasks for a specific person. Seeing eye or guide dogs are service dogs, as are hearing dogs and dogs who open doors and pick items off the floor. There are also service dogs who alert their humans to oncoming seizures or drops in blood sugar; this is a sensitivity they attune to after placement.
In November of last year, we applied to Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) for a skilled companion service dog for Princess Pea. After many steps in the process, at each of which we could have been released from the program, she and I made a trip to the local CCI regional training center in Santa Rosa, CA, for the final step in the process: Our personal interview and tour.
Twelve potential recipients, and their support entourages, were present during our time at CCI. The day included a tour of the campus, a history of CCI, the process by which a puppy becomes a service dog, and (the pièce de résistance!) actual touching of and working with the dogs. The day ended with a one-on-one interview.
From their website: “Canine Companions for Independence is a non-profit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships.”
In part, our application to CCI read:
[Her] life has been one of upheaval and uncertainty. First with the life transition of adoption, and then with the continued intensity of her sensory input and processing as a result of her autism. She is mainstreamed at school and doing well academically, but must be managed at all times with various interventions, pull-outs, time-outs, and 1x1 attention. She comes home exhausted and overloaded. She has no friends.
A service dog would help [her] manage the anxiety brought on by autism and low vision. It would aid her in redirecting when she begins to stim, self harm, or grow too intense for companionship. A dog would be a calm, consistent, reliable, unconditional source of support and affection. It would help our family regain some balance. It would help her dad and I find a place of peace and safety.
CCI has a paid staff of about 65, mostly dog trainers and fundraisers. Volunteers handle the rest of their extensive operation. Recipients do not pay for their dog or that dog’s training. CCI relies on donations to provide fully trained dogs as well as accommodation for the entire family and some meals during the two-week Team Training.
Each year, CCI volunteer Breeder Caretakers foster mama dogs in their own homes. On average, 700 puppies are born each year. After the puppies are born, weaned, and socialized (at about eight weeks old) they are all sent to the main training center in Santa Rosa for a vet check, spay/neuter, microchip, and vaccinations. Next, they are sent out all over the US to volunteer Puppy Raisers who begin the basic training and housebreaking of the dogs. At 14-16 months, the dogs are sent to one of five regional centers for advanced training. During the six months of advanced training, the dogs learn more than 40 generic commands as well as how to work around mobility devices (wheelchairs, walkers, canes). Some dogs are moved into the Hearing Dog program.
After advanced training, the dogs are paired with their recipients for team training, an intensive two-week period during which the recipients learn how to take care of their canine companion. On average, 250 teams are created each year. There are currently more than 1900 active CCI teams. Dogs who do not make it to team training (for health or temperament reasons) are adopted, usually by their puppy raiser or a CCI staff member.
When we first started down the service-dog path, I was reluctant to throw my hat in for a full-breed dog since I find that mutts are so generally wonderful and available. CCI breeds Labradors and Golden Retrievers, and 90% of their dogs placed are a mix of the two. Still, the image of a dog “made for me” found me cringing. For this reason alone, the visit to the CCI campus was an education. These dogs are working dogs, bored stiff by inactivity. They thrive on following their leader and being praised for good pack behavior. As I watched each dog with each member of our little ensemble, I marveled at Lila’s ability to walk right next to Chad in his wheelchair and at Phoebe’s insistence when lying exactly to Sally’s side. Watching the dogs “get,” “visit,” turn on and off a light (“light” and “switch”) and open doors was incredible. And, they knew it too.
At the end of the day, Princess repeated how much she wants a service dog. She told the trainer at our private interview, she told me at lunch, she told anyone who would listen. At this point, we’ve done all we can do: Filled in all the forms, sent in letters of support from our doctors and therapists, and cuddled uproariously with Francisco the wonder Lab. Now, it’s up to CCI. If we are placed on their waiting list, we could wait up to two years for our match. CCI prides itself on connecting the right dog with the right human. We should know before school starts this August.
To make our wait more meaningful (whether it’s a week for a negative answer or two years for a dog), I’ve decided to dedicate all of my upcoming race-walk training and races to CCI. If you choose, you can donate via my personal webpage:
If Princess doesn’t get a dog, someone worthy will -- many someones. The page will remain active while I train for the US Half marathon in November 2014, the Big Sur Marathon in April 2015, and beyond. The openness on Walt’s face when he led Francisco, the joy in Chad’s laugh when the dogs misbehaved, and the determination on Sally’s face as she struggled through the effects of her stroke just to lead Lila around in a circle will remain in my heart.
At CCI, HELP and LOVE are four-legged words.