From Puppies to Pals

By Dan Barber
Senior Vice President
Robertson Lowstuter, Inc.

Over the past fourteen years, my wife, Jane, and I have traveled ten times from our home in Libertyville, IL to Milwaukee’s Mitchell Field airport cargo facility, eagerly awaiting the arrival of yet another fuzzy little eight-week old puppy delivered to us by the North Central Regional Center of CCI – Canine Companions for Independence.

We’re volunteer puppy raisers for CCI!

CCI is a national nonprofit organization, and since 1975 has been training dogs to assist and enhance the lives of persons with physical and developmental disabilities.

Dogs that eventually “graduate” from CCI’s year-long puppy-raising experience and rigorous six-month advanced training program are trained to more than 50 specialized commands and become physical extensions of their disabled partners by performing a variety of tasks. Whether it is picking up dropped keys, delivering a credit card to a cashier, turning lights on or off, or retrieving items for a person in a wheelchair – or alerting someone who is deaf to a fire alarm or ringing doorbell – a Canine Companion helps a person with a disability live more independently.  The list of tasks these dogs can do to help provide independence is incredible!

Recipients of our graduate dogs have also told us that their assistance dogs provide significant social and psychological support as well.  A dog is a natural ice-breaker, and can bridge the gap between the isolation or rejection a wheelchair bound or otherwise disabled person may feel in numerous social, school, and other public settings.  After all, who can possibly resist a beautiful, perfectly trained dog?

Our most recent puppy, “Flash,” is nine months old, and is a beautiful Golden/Labrador retriever cross.  Our role is to socialize and instruct him in basic “good manners’ and required CCI commands.  Assisting is our now 14-year old black lab “Gordon,” our first CCI puppy who failed to graduate and came back to live with us.  He gladly assumes responsibility for puppy discipline.  Jane is the principal trainer and has guided Flash through obedience training classes and introductions to a variety of environments.

Once the puppies are at least six months old and have demonstrated reliable conduct, they accompany Jane everywhere she goes – to the doctor and dentist, the shopping center, grocery store, church, restaurants – anywhere in public that a person with a service or assistance dog will typically go.  For the past few years, our puppies have been seated with Jane in the disabled section of all University of Wisconsin home football games, courtesy of the UW Athletic Department.

Jane contributes as a volunteer fundraiser and public awareness proponent for CCI, and she and Flash routinely conduct educational and informational demonstrations for Chicago-area schools, service clubs, and charitable organizations.

Our role as puppy raisers concludes in two phases.  When the puppies are about 15 months old, they are ready for advanced training and we return them to CCI’s Delaware, Ohio regional training center for an additional six months of intensified advanced training.  Once they have successfully “graduated” from this training, we are then invited to return to Delaware to participate in an amazing, emotional public graduation ceremony.  There we have the opportunity to meet our now adult dog’s new partner and proudly – but sadly – turn over the leash.

Persons interested in learning more about – or contributing to – the Canine Companions for Independence organization and volunteer programs can connect with CCI at www.cci.org or info@cci.org, or by calling 1-800-572-bark (2275).

***Next Up in the Charitable Giving Series: Microfinance on December 15th.***

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