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Raising service dogs a labor of love

Elizabeth Holman with her two puppies training to be service dogs

Trainer Elizabeth Holman, along with service-puppies- in-training Aavey and Floxie, will make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities. Photo: Marc Piscotty

The hardest part is saying good-bye.

After raising a puppy for 18 months and bringing the animal with her everywhere — from DU classes to grocery store errands — Elizabeth Holman eventually must face the day when she has to give it back.

There’s plenty of Kleenex to go around when she and other puppy trainers turn over their dogs, who then begin an intensive training course for new roles as assistance dogs for people with disabilities. But while emotions for Holman and others run high, they are eased by watching a group of recently trained assistance dogs graduate with their new owners.

“There’s something really magical about seeing the look on a person’s face as they take the leash and their dog settles in next to them,” Holman says. “It’s really a nice way to contribute to the community and get involved in a personal way.”

For the past five years, Holman, a DU PsyD candidate, has raised three dogs as a volunteer puppy trainer for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a Santa Rosa, Calif., based organization that provides assistance dogs to people with disabilities. The puppies live with their trainers, who care for them, pay their food and vet bills, teach them important commands and expose them to a wide variety of public places. After about 18 months, trainers return them to headquarters in California for an intensive, six- to nine-month course that prepares them to be assistance dogs.

Not every dog makes the cut; only about 30 percent of all puppies actually will graduate. The rest are evaluated for other lines of service such as sniffing out bombs or drugs or visiting nursing homes. Or, they are returned to their puppy raiser.

CCI has puppy training programs across the country, including Colorado, which currently has 60 puppies in training. Eight of them are being trained by inmates at the Kit Carson Correctional Center in Burlington, Colo., according to Paul O’Brien (BA political science ’93), director of CCI in Colorado.

“When we started the prison puppy raising program, I was amazed to see the impact the dogs made on the inmates’ lives-the program provides them with motivation, teaches them to nurture an animal and offers them a way to contribute to society,” O’Brien says.

CCI has its own breeding stock-which it shares with Guide Dogs for the Blind, headquartered in San Rafael, Calif. The dogs are black and yellow labs, golden retrievers or a combination of those breeds. Guide Dogs for the Blind also uses a small percentage of German Shepherds.

“We’re trying to breed in the qualities that an assistance dog needs to have,” O’Brien says. “Basically, they have to be exceptional. That includes being able to handle any situation in public, not being too aggressive or territorial and not being too full of energy. And they have to want to work.”

CCI has about a two-year waiting list, while Guide Dogs for the Blind generally does not have one unless people have very specific requirements. The latter group usually can provide qualified applicants with a dog within a couple of months, according to spokesperson Mary Angell.

During their training, assistance dogs are taught a wide variety of commands, including to retrieve things without shredding them, push handicapped access buttons and open drawers and doors. They even learn how to help people undress or do the laundry. Guide dogs, meanwhile, are taught to lead people in a straight line and avoid obstacles, including hanging objects. They also learn “intelligent disobedience.” For example, if the dogs see a lot of traffic approaching when their owners tell them to go, they will not cross the street.

Both assistance and guide dogs are provided free of charge to qualified applicants. The process includes a written application, letters from physicians and/or therapists and phone and personal interviews.

Once approved for an assistance dog, people report to CCI’s Santa Rosa headquarters for a two-week team training in which they learn how to safely handle the dogs. The class usually consists for 10-12 people and 15-20 dogs.

“People are observed to see if there is any natural bonding going on with certain dogs,” O’Brien says. “We also observe their leadership skills and their lifestyle.”

If someone is active, for example, they would need a dog that has plenty of energy, wants to work and is not fearful of new experiences. Participants also can list their top three choices.

After being matched with their dog, owners will continue to receive support and assistance from both these organizations-including new dogs when their current ones retire.

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