Puppy Love : Making a Family Project Out of Raising a Dog for the Disabled

Maureen Brown is a writer and mother of four.

Every family creates its own bonding experiences--the things it does that bring it closer. Those experiences often bring a sense of accomplishment and may occur around projects such as building a Soapbox Derby car, perfecting a spice cake recipe, or remodeling the cellar into a recreation room.

Canine Companions for Independence is an unusual program that can offer families the opportunity to grow together as well as help others. The nonprofit organization, founded in 1975, trains dogs to assist people who have disabilities (except for blindness) to lead more independent lives.

The dogs are bred in Santa Rosa from a selected pedigree stock and then are raised in private homes from 8 weeks of age until they are ready for advanced training at about 18 months of age. The Southwest Regional Training Center for Canine Companions for Independence is located at the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe.

The majority of dogs in the program are Labrador and golden retrievers. Border collies and Pembroke Welsh corgis are also used. Canine Companions has found that these sporting and herding breeds have a natural ability to work with people. All the dogs are neutered as pups.

The program requires that the adoptive homes be loving, have a fenced yard or kennel and that one family member participate in bimonthly obedience classes held Saturdays at the Rancho Santa Fe Center. The puppy raiser submits monthly progress reports.

The puppy must live in the house and sleep in the puppy raiser's bedroom. Adorned in their bright yellow capes with the Canine Companions' insignia, the dogs accompany their foster families to public places to experience crowds, traffic, elevators, public transportation, confusing and loud noises.

Bonnie Zeller, a senior at Carlsbad High School, was 16 when she received her dog, Zambelli, a golden retriever, as part of the program.

For the next 18 months, Zambelli joined Bonnie's family and attended school with her. "At first the kids in my class were surprised that the school would let a dog come to class. He got a lot of attention in the beginning. Eventually, he was just another 'person' in the class. We took Zambelli everywhere, including a car trip to Idaho. We love to tell everyone that he even stayed on the 16th floor of Circus Circus in Reno."

Two times a month, Bonnie's mother drove her to the two-hour classes on a Saturday morning, where they would learn training techniques and important commands that the dog should master.

"Teaching the commands just came naturally," Bonnie said. Most activities with the dog are a learning experience, even play. When a Canine Companion puppy retrieves a ball it is preparing for the 24 retrieve commands that will enable it to select groceries from store shelves or pick up dropped items that may be out of disabled individual's reach.

"The shake command is an important command for the puppy," notes Janet Windman of Carlsbad, who with her husband and his teen-age daughter is raising a golden retriever. "The shake command requires the dog to use the same motor skills necessary to turn on light switches and operate an elevator."

Geraldine Gatehouse of Oliveheim became involved in Canine Companions after reading about the program in the paper. For 18 months, her dog, Republic, accompanied her to shopping centers and restaurants. "Everyone is curious about these puppies with the yellow capes," she said. "They would frequently stop me to ask about the dog and the program. It usually took a half-hour to do 10 minutes of grocery shopping."

At 18 months of age, the dogs are returned to the center for six-months of extensive training. The skills and personalities of the returning dogs are evaluated by the staff during the period. Foster families may take the dogs home for the weekend during the first three months of this training period. Community members who have taken two of the classes may take the dogs home on these weekends if the original family is not available.

After the six-month training session, accepted candidates for a Canine Companion participate in a two-week program, referred to as "boot camp." During that time, the personalities of a potential owner and dog are matched, and training and grooming are mastered.

The dogs are trained in four areas: service, specialty, signal and social.

Service dogs assist individuals who have physically limitations by doing such tasks as turning light switches off and on, pushing elevator buttons, retrieving dropped items and pulling wheelchairs.

Specialty dogs are trained to meet the need of individuals who have multiple disabilities, such as someone who is physically disabled and deaf.

Signal dogs alert individuals who are deaf or hearing-impaired to sounds such as the ring of a telephone, an alarm clock, a smoke detector, the cry of a child or a knock on a door.

Social dogs work in institutions and with individuals who are convalescing, autistic, or developmentally disabled.

Based on a dog's personality and natural abilities, the trainers match them with prospective recipients during boot camp. These "teams" learn to work together during the two weeks.

Not all the dogs in the program are accepted. The dogs not accepted are placed in a release program that allows the original trainer to keep the dog or a new owner to adopt it for a nominal fee.

Geraldine Gatehouse's dog, Republic, failed to meet the Canine Companion requirements because of its hip-dysplasia. "I was crushed, thinking he'd be going on to help humanity," Gatehouse said. However, she and Republic have since pursued other avenues of assisting others and have become involved in a hospital visitation program.

Foster families of dogs in the Canine Companions program are financially responsible for the care of the dog, including food, equipment and veterinary care for the 18 months in which the dog is in their possession. The cost, which is tax deductible, is estimated at about $425 for a small breed and $715 for a larger breed.

Following the two weeks of boot camp, a graduation ceremony is held where puppy raisers formally present the "puppies" to their new masters. The next graduation at the local center will be Nov. 16.

As for positive family projects, Bonnie Zeller's father is getting the fence in order and she and her brother Mar, 14, are planning on another puppy.

Canine Companions for Independence recently purchased a 1-acre lot for a new center in Poway. Funds are being sought for a 7,500-square-foot facility with enough kennels and runs to house 40 dogs.

Additional information on the program is available from the Southwest Center in Rancho Santa Fe, 756-1012. Although there is no immediate need for families to adopt puppies, that situation often changes quickly.

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