For as long as I can remember, dogs have been an important part of my family. My dad is an avid (read: obsessed) duck hunter, so Labrador Retrievers have naturally been a staple of the family for us. Leaving home for optometry school brought me away from something I’ve grown so familiar to, the presence of a four-legged companion.
Since that time, and since last year’s loss of our latest lab, my Maggie-dog, I’ve wanted to fill my dog-shaped void at our home in Dallas. When I learned that my significant other would be working alongside a non-profit, service dog organization in his job at Southwest Airlines, I knew there was hope. I learned about Canine Companions for Independence, the important role they play in providing assistance to those with disabilities, and how they rely almost entirely on the volunteerism of people across the country to raise dogs in order to provide them to those in need.
Canine Companions was established in 1975 in Santa Rosa, California. Since then, they have expanded into regions across the country, with the South Central Region at Baylor Scott and White (focused entirely on Texas) as its newest region—it opened in Irving September, 2015. Canine Companions provides four types of service animals: hearing, physical, cognitive, and Veteran assistance. The dogs are provided to those that are disabled completely free of charge, and applicants go through an extensive, vigorous application process in order to be approved to receive a Canine Companions Assistance Dog. One single service dog costs approximately $50,000 from start to finish in training, and this cost is covered solely on donations and volunteer work from breeders, puppy raisers, veterinarians, and other volunteer methods.
What goes in to becoming a service dog?
Canine Companion’s dogs are special even before birth. They only breed Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers (or a cross between the two), and they generally allow only former Canine Companions dogs to be bred (about 1.5% of all dogs they’ve raised). Puppies are bred and cared for by Breeder Caretakers until 8 weeks of age. From 8 weeks to approximately 2 years, the dogs are trained by volunteer puppy raisers who provide care, as well as the basic training and socialization tools they’ll need to become a service dog (more on this shortly!). From there, the dogs enter advanced training for 6-9 months, and then they spend 2 weeks in Team Training after matching the dog’s skill set with a person’s specific need.
After easily convincing my significant other on why it was a fantastic opportunity, we applied and were approved to become puppy raisers for a Canine Companion puppy. Although we weren’t supposed to receive a pup until August or September, we got an early call from Canine Companions, asking if we’d be interested in taking on a pup that others passed on in favor of different gender/colored dogs. Of course, we happily accepted, and Otto joined our family on July 1.
Puppies are a blast, but raising a service animal is a little different from just having a new pet. There are expectations for the behaviors, commands, and level of training for each of these dogs. Much of our time is spent training Otto on how to act like a service dog (walking alongside us and sitting/laying at our side, walking loosely on a leash, and even going to the bathroom on command!). Of course, we set aside plenty of time for fun; Otto gets to play with his favorite toys (Mr. Fox, his blue football, and of course a stuffed duck) throughout the day too.
As Otto grows and becomes more comfortable with his commands and the world around him, he will begin to take on new adventures so that he is prepared for any type of environment. This includes airports, grocery stores, malls, Starbucks, and generally any public place with new people, sounds, smells, and distractions. When in pubic he wears an identifying Canine Companions cape- because he is a super hero in training.
Canine Companions always has ways in which people can get involved. Some opportunities are large-scale commitments, such as volunteer puppy raising, but there are also smaller ways to get connected. On September 22, Canine Companions is participating in North Texas Giving Day (NTGD). NTGD raised 33 million dollars in 24 hours last year, and Canine Companions is hoping to hit their goal of $25,000 this year. Simply click the link, and wait until September 22 to donate to the organization.
For more Otto-specific fun, the Canine Companions’ DogFest Walk ‘N Roll is on October 1 at their campus in Irving, and we have created an Otto-themed team named ‘No Otto-graphs, Please’ that will include Colleyville Vision and their canine participants (shout out to Nike and Reba). You can join Otto’s squad and donate by following the link for DogFest, selecting “Join a Team”, and using the search team ‘Otto’ to find and register for “No Otto-graphs, Please!” Thank you for your support, and if you see Otto at CVA visiting, feel free to say “hello!”