Canine Companions for Independence puppy raisers prepare dogs for life of service | VailDaily.com

Canine Companions for Independence puppy raisers prepare dogs for life of service

Lindsay Bribiescas
lindsay@vaildaily.com

Some dogs grow up to wear sweaters, and some grow up to travel in purses. Puppies at Canine Companions for Independence, however, grow into a uniform that gives them the ability to travel essentially however and wherever they want. Canine Companions for Independence has been providing service dogs for humans in need free of charge since 1975, and the dogs start their training even before a puppy is born. The breeding programs go back generations, with dogs bred specially for obedience, health and non-aggression — the epitome of a "good dog." Once the puppy is born, it is almost immediately handed off to puppy raisers, who will be the puppy's family for the next one to two years.

TRAINING A CANINE COMPANION

These raisers teach the puppies the normal puppy raising duties — teaching them their name, housebreaking them and basic commands. But they also get the perks and responsibilities that come with the CCI vest. The puppies are given a vest and a harness that allows them access to most places — restaurants, planes and more.

Puppy raisers attend training classes twice a month, with other puppy raisers in the area. These classes offer the opportunity for the puppies to socialize with each other, giving the raisers a chance to socialize, as well. But the classes aren't formatted like a typical obedience class.

"What they're really trying to do is teach the humans how to break bad habits and when they give dogs cues as to what the expectation is when giving a command," said Kevin O'Grady, a puppy raiser in Denver. "So it's really, how are the humans interacting with the dogs and how are we expressing or setting our expectations toward the dog."

Puppy raisers are required to submit a monthly report, which is then scrutinized by CCI to determine the traits and potential problems of the puppies. The reports contribute to the partnering process and could signify a need for the dog to have a "change of career" — what CCI calls a release from the program, or a transfer to another service dog organization.

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By the time the puppies are turned over to professional trainers, they know about 25 commands that can be built on by the professional trainers at the regional center. The puppies work with the professional trainers for about two months, until they are ready to be partnered. Then the professional trainers and dogs participate in a two-week team training with the potential partners.

PRISON PUPPY RAISING PROGRAM

Puppy raising isn't a limited branch of CCI. Puppy raisers can be found even in prisons, where Anne Roberts, president of the Vail Valley chapter of CCI, says the organization gets some of its best puppies because of the prisoners' commitment.

Prisoners undergo a vetting process to receive a puppy, who stays with them the majority of the time, attending work and recreational time with them. The puppies even stay in the prisoner's room.

"Many of these prisoners have never had the responsibility or that unconditional love, they've never really given back as they do when they're training this little fuzzball," Roberts said. "Many times it changes their lives, many times when they get out, they've gone on to become puppy raisers or they've done something in their field. They go back to school, so that is an extraordinarily positive thing that we do."

BECOMING A PUPPY RAISER

The process to become a puppy raiser involves a written application, phone interview, home inspection and review. Then, puppy raisers are placed on a list, where they stay until a puppy needs placement.

The entire process can take anywhere from a few months to more than a year. At the moment, there is a shortage of puppy raisers, so the wait ought to be shorter than it normally would be.

Roberts says that the key qualities a puppy raiser should have is patience, commitment, passion and a sense of fun. A puppy raiser's primary job is to expose the puppy to as much as they can, including public transportation, shopping and other animals.

O'Grady and his wife Vanessa Graziano have been puppy raisers for the past 13 years, raising nine puppies. Their current puppy, Lizbeth, will be going to professional training shortly. Of the eight puppies that they have already sent to professional training, four have completed the program — and their 50 percent success rate is higher than the national rate.

"It's a bit counter-intuitive. You might think, 'Well, I want all my dogs to graduate,' and if you think about it a little bit further, you only want dogs who are happy to do that work," O'Grady said. "CCI is really good at seeing those behaviors and saying, 'Yep, that dog is not suited to work in public, he doesn't want to do it, let him be a very happy pet.'"

He adds that the mission of assistance dogs are to make people's lives easier, to help them gain more independence, so dogs with medical or behavioral problems are not as helpful to their partners.

Big hearts

As for giving up the puppy, the couple said that although it's sad — they cry every time they hand over the leash — the product of their love and labor makes it worth it.

"Knowing that we are doing something to help someone else to gain more independence, to live a more enriched life, that makes it OK," Graziano said. "We've always said we get so much more out of it than we put into it. If people are hesitating, and you're worried about how you would give them up, like my friend says, 'You'd be surprised at how big your heart is.'"

For more information, or to apply for a dog visit http://www.cci.org.

By the numbers

There are 72 puppy raisers in the state of Colorado.

The average dog stays with puppy raisers for about 18 months.

Puppy raisers spend about $1,500-2,00a0, including food, vet bills, toys and more.

Graduated assistance dogs know about 40 commands.

Become a puppy raiser

Volunteer puppy raisers for Canine Companions for Independence provide specially-bred puppies a safe home, take them to obedience classes, serve up a healthy diet, provide socialization opportunities and give lots of love.

For more information, visit http://www.cci.org.