Vail Valley woman teaching dog to help others |

Vail Valley woman teaching dog to help others

Laura A. Ball
Vail, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyTyler, a 3-month-old puppy training to be a service dog for Canine Companions for Independence, plays tug of war with trainer Leah O'Brien Thursday at her work in Eagle-Vail, Colorado

VAIL VALLEY, Colorado –Vail Valley resident Leah O’Brien was strolling through the crowd at Avondale’s Friday Afternoon Club in Avon when she felt a tug on the leash around her wrist.

Upon turning around, she discovered a woman had picked up her 3-month-old puppy, Tyler, and had begun to walk away.

O’Brien admits this kind of attention to tiny Tyler is not uncommon in public and can be overwhelming at times, not to mention a distraction from the yellow Lab/golden retriever’s larger task at hand.

Tyler is not just a puppy. He’s not even O’Brien’s pet. He is a service dog in training for Canine Companions for Independence. Fundamental to his future role, she says, is that Tyler learn to ignore other animals and people and remain focused on his companion.

“Having everybody bombard him and he’s wearing his blue and yellow CCI vest is a hard part of my job,” O’Brien says. “He’s supposed to be socialized because whomever he’s going to assist will need him to go to the grocery store and go into town, and as cute as he is, he needs to learn how to do his job and be ignored a little bit.”

She is one of 623 volunteer puppyraisers in the United States for the organization that provides highly trained assistance dogs to enhance the lives of people with disabilities.

Edwards resident Anne Roberts introduced the organization to the Vail Valley in 2001 and since then more than $550,000 has been raised locally to support the nonprofit.

“Because 83 cents out of every dollar goes toward the dogs,” Roberts says, “it’s a win-win situation. People can see firsthand where their donations will go.

“It seems to touch the hearts of so many people in the valley to see these wonderful trained dogs changed the lives in so many ways of those with disabilities and therefore the lives of the families as well.”

O’Brien, a Vail native, worked at veterinary hospitals while in college. When her mom left to join the Peace Corps in Honduras in February, O’Brien decided she too “needed a project.” She learned of Canine Companions and its puppyraising program.

“I couldn’t write a check and I wanted to help,” says the 25-year-old. “The opportunity was there, and I felt with my background that I was wasting it not doing something. I’ve seen what a difference these dogs make in people’s lives. You can raise a dog and do something amazing for someone.”

For the next 15 months, it’s O’Brien’s responsibility to take Tyler to puppy classes and teach him house manners and public etiquette.

She discovered Vail’s own dog whisperer Mark Ruark, a certified pet dog trainer and enrolled herself and Tyler in his eight-week program.

“Mark is amazing. At the first session he taught me, if you want your dog to speak human you have to learn how to speak dog. You learn by watching his behavior,” she says. “Now I know that when he starts chewing, it’s because he’s stressed and anxious. So I remove him from the situation. When we’re out and he has 10 hands on him, it makes him nervous so we’ll go somewhere quiet and calm down.”

O’Brien asks that if people see service dogs, please respect them and their handlers.

“Ask to pet them,” she says. “As long as he’s not nervous, I almost always say yes.”

As far as house training goes, Tyler has not necessarily been a walk in the dog park.

“He’s good but sometimes he forgets or gets excited when he’s playing with the other dogs. He was playing with the big dogs in the office the other day, right after I took him out and had an accident on the tile right at the edge of the carpet,” says O’Brien, who manages All Mountain Technologies office in Eagle-Vail. “I’m really lucky that it’s dog friendly. Everyone at work loves Tyler.”

Most of the time Tyler is tethered to O’Brien’s desk at work, as Canine Companions requires the puppies be crated whenever they are left alone. Dogs in training are also not allowed to sleep in bed with their handlers, so the only time he is crated is at night to sleep.

Since acquiring Tyler, O’Brien has only been without him for one hour. “I wasn’t quite ready to bring him to the grocery store because I didn’t want him to have an accident,” she says.

“A month from now I hope Tyler will be completely potty trained so I can give him a little more freedom in the house and not worry about the carpet,” O’Brien says. “He should know how to sit, stay and lay down with Mark’s help of course.”

When the year-plus is up, Tyler will enter Canine Companion’s formal training program for six months before being placed with a well-matched recipient. Though not all dogs complete the training, some are released due to medical or temperament problems. How he behaves will determine his success as a service companion.

“The guys at work try and teach him naughty things because if he fails you get to keep him,” she says. “They tell him don’t jump while they encourage him to jump by patting their chests. They’ll play tug of war with him.

“For the next year-and-a-half I will treat him like my dog. I do want him to pass. I do want him to do the job he was bred for.”

O’Brien is constantly snapping photos and keeping memories in Tyler’s baby book, which his companion will one day receive.

“I’m watching him grow and learn every day,” she says beaming. “This morning he finally did the flight of big stairs at home. I’ve been carrying him down the stairs until now. He was so happy. He knew that he did something amazing. I will pass these moments on to his new owner.”

Keep reading the Vail Daily for monthly updates on Canine Companion’s puppy Tyler. For the record, it was O’Brien’s idea to name the series “The Adventures of Tyler.

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