My granddaughter is deaf. At nine years old, she has many anxieties. What if there’s a fire and she doesn’t hear the alarm? She could be left behind. This worries her so much that she is afraid to go to sleep.
I have a friend with spina bifida. She’s unwilling to leave her house because of the heartless comments people make about her weight and inability to walk.
Recently I interviewed two women for my new book, “A Gift of Puppies.” Pam Flannigan and Joan Buntin are volunteers who take care of breeder dogs and their new puppies for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). Pam has assisted in the whelping of thirty litters at her house. She and her husband, Steve, figure it’s been about three hundred pups. Joan was a CCI puppy raiser, but when one of her dogs was selected to be a breeder, she chose to keep the dog and become a breeder caretaker. I listened spellbound as they shared the world of puppies from the very first moments of life to eight weeks. Then they began to tell me about the different services these dogs perform for the sake of people in need. Suddenly, I realized here could be an answer to my granddaughter’s worries and my friend’s shame and isolation. There was not room in my book to include this long part of the interview, but the information is so valuable and inspiring that I wanted to present it here in the hopes that it will provide answers to some of the problems of your own family and friends.
Joan: The first puppy I raised was named Penrose. We turned her in, and my husband and I were so miserable for the two weeks we had no dog, so we decided that we had to get another puppy. I’ve learned that it’s much easier to get the new puppy a few weeks before you turn one in. That way you have one to focus on.
I’ve had seven graduate and two breeders chosen, and I have one in advance training now. I have number fourteen at home. She’s a seven-month-old Golden Retriever. I’ve gotten to meet all of the people who have received the dogs that have graduated, and I’ve kept in touch with quite a few of them. One lady and I have become fantastic friends. We e-mail each other. She’s been to my house, and I’ve been to her house. We’ve almost become like sisters.
There are different categories of placements for CCI dogs. A full service dog is usually assigned to an adult with a disability and in a wheelchair. A full service dog gets things, picks things up, opens doors and drawers. If their person is in a manual chair, they can pull the wheelchair. They can turn on light switches and push elevator buttons.
Pam: They get things out of the refrigerator. I think the most common request of graduates for service dogs is being able to retrieve items. The command is “get,” and they point to it. The dog can pick up a dime off a cement floor. They can pick up a credit card. They have to have a soft enough mouth to pick up a banana, or get a can out of the refrigerator without puncturing it. They have to be able to pick up a variety of textures, whether it be soft or metal or a hair brush, car keys, telephone. CCI tries to fine-tune the dog’s skills to meet the needs of the graduate. The dogs have basic skills for retrieving or opening doors, but maybe they have never pulled a sock off someone’s foot, so they will work with them on that in the team training. The dog and the person are in team training for two weeks.
Joan: Then they have a skilled companion dog, where the person is quite often a child. There’s a facilitator for the dog – a parent or an adult that handles the dog, and the dog is a companion.
Pam: We hear over and over again from parents who say how, once they got the dog and the dog’s sleeping in the bed, it’s the first time the child has slept through the night, and the first time they haven’t had to sit with the child for hours on end, trying to get them to sleep. Or, maybe they didn’t speak. I’ve personally heard a number of stories about how the first words the child spoke were to the dog. They tell it to “heel,” or whatever command they were trying to give it. It’s pretty amazing.
Joan: Then there are the hearing dogs. And then they do a facility placement, which is someone that works in maybe a hospital, special education, occupational therapist, physical therapist.
Pam: I’ve heard that one of the Sutter hospital dogs actually gets on the gurney with the child when it’s going to surgery. It can only go to a certain point and has a calming effect. When they’re having chemo, they might sit with them while they’re getting their treatment. It makes it a better experience for them. They just “be”—they just be there with them, a warm body for them to love on, or just to lie by their side and give them a little strength to get through what they’re going through.
Joan: A couple of my dogs have been placed as facility dogs. It’s a really wonderful placement. These dogs touch hundreds of lives. One works in the pediatrics oncology department.
The story that I’ll never forget is this lady, Carol, who was an occupational therapist. She worked in the burn unit and the spinal cord injury unit. She would go in and evaluate the situation and determine what the plan was—what kind of treatment and therapy the person needed.
There was a young boy that had been in a motorcycle accident. One moment he was able bodied, and the next moment he was paraplegic. He was very angry. He wouldn’t let anybody touch him. He didn’t want to talk to anybody. His family couldn’t reason with him. Carol was supposed to go in and kind of evaluate, and see where the next step needed to be. He wouldn’t talk with her. He didn’t want anything to do with her. She said, “Do you like dogs?” She had received Alma, a dog I raised. The boy grumbled, “Yeah, yeah.” She said, “Well, I have this cute little blond out in the hallway. Would you like to meet her?” “Yeah, yeah.” So she brought the dog in, and had the dog do an up-on-the-bed. He threw his arms around that dog and just started sobbing. After that she could do whatever she needed to do.
Joan: They’re placing quite a few now in the court systems where kids are coming in. The dogs are a calming influence. The handler is the person who graduates with the dog, and then they take the dog to work with them.
Pam: There was a story that came out today about the courthouse dog that was recently placed. I don’t know what the graduate’s capacity was, whether she was a lawyer or if she worked for the D.A., but at any rate, the dog was used to calm the children when they had to testify in front of all these strangers. Just having the dog by their side would help give them the strength, the wherewithal, to be able to answer questions. The story told how it had made a difference in so many of the kids.
Joan: And sometimes, when they can’t bring themselves to talk to a human being, they’ll sit and tell the dog this story.
The lady that I was telling you about, that I have become so close to, she had a PhD in Psychology. This very intelligent woman has this wonderful humor. She was injured in a car accident and became a quadriplegic. Her whole self-confidence was just eliminated. She didn’t want to go out in public. She just withdrew. Her husband finally convinced her to apply for a CCI dog. She received the dog that I had raised, Ellijay. After receiving the dog, she wasn’t afraid to go out in public. People would come up and talk to her. They didn’t look at her like she didn’t know anything. They realized what a really intelligent, humorous person she was. She actually started volunteering in a school, reading with children. It totally changed her life.
Pam: The dogs are matched to the needs and personality of the human partner. Are they really active? Are they more inclined to stay home? Do they have a pretty active dog that needs a strong handler? All those things are taken into consideration.
Joan: There was one dog that was paired with a person who was very disabled. He could not even pet the dog. A lot of times that’s the dog’s reward—a pat or a pet on the head. The person’s hand would be laying there and the dog would go up underneath and rub and get its pet.
Pam: We’ve heard time and time again from graduates who say, “I had my eye on that little Black Lab over there, but CCI matched me with this Yellow Lab/ Golden Retriever cross, and boy, were they right!” I hear that a lot. I’m sure, to some degree, it’s the same with guide dogs. And you probably know that the dogs are given to the people free of charge. There’s no fee.
Joan: CCI also has a program where they work with some of the prisons. They call them “prison puppies.” The puppies go into the women’s state prison. They are placed with inmates, and the inmates do the puppy training. They have volunteer families that take the puppies out on the weekends to socialize them. I’m not sure how many prisons they’re working with now.
Pam: Actually, they’re interviewing with one in Virginia as we speak. They have one in Texas, Colorado, Florida, so there’s four or five.
Joan: It’s not as if just any inmate can participate. They have to earn the right.
Pam: There’s been some pretty amazing stories from the inmates.
Joan: The one I remember is one of the first graduations I went to. One of the prison puppies was being turned in. Of course, someone else has to bring the puppy in. The inmate can’t bring the puppy to graduation, but she had written a letter. She was in prison for killing her husband. She was an abused wife. She said, “Raising this puppy taught me how to love. I didn’t know how to love, not even my children. Raising this puppy taught me that.” The detective that arrested her had promised her that, when she got out, he would help her find a job working with dogs in some way. It totally changed her life. These puppies have a way of touching a lot of lives.
Joan: It’s the unconditional love, and they totally trust you.
Pam: They don’t care what you look like.
Joan: If you talk funny, if you look funny, didn’t brush your hair that day…
Pam: Can’t walk. The disability becomes invisible when you have a cute dog by your side.
For more information, contact Canine Companions for Independence.