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At your service: Trainers raise puppies to become assistance dogs through nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence

“Gromit?” thought Sharon O’Neill. “What kind of a name is Gromit?”

But when the Columbia woman learned that he’s a British cartoon dog, and a very clever one at that, she was OK with the name of the Lab/golden retriever mix puppy she had signed on to raise for Canine Companions for Independence.

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CCI is the largest nonprofit assistance dog provider in the world. Its graduates go on to aid individuals with over 60 types of disabilities, physical and emotional, or to public service work including bomb sniffing, border patrol, customs, institutional visitation or even companions in court. And those puppy raisers are the backbone of the organization, says John Bentzinger, CCI public relations and marketing coordinator, Northeast region.

To keep all the puppies straight, the carefully bred litters are labeled alphabetically and pups are named by letter of the litter. Names must not be changed through the life of dog — one of many rules to which all puppy raisers and also eventual CCI clients (6,117 since its founding in 1975) must agree.

For their first 18 months, the puppies lead “the life of Riley” with their raisers: enjoying love and attention, playing, socializing, getting basic canine training (with tasty rewards, of course), and being presented with every life situation their human buddies can provide.

They are exposed to people who look different, including those wearing hats, and learn to appropriately deal with riding a bus and the Metro, shopping in a grocery store, crossing urban highways, visiting healthcare facilities and airport terminals, hearing noisy truck engines, spending a day at the office or on a farm, even attending an event at the NSA. In their bright yellow capes, Gromit and his fellows go places ordinary dogs never can.

For O’Neill, a now-retired physical therapist, the journey began in the ‘80s, when she saw an ad for CCI and made a note that it was something she wanted to do once she was no longer working. And she didn’t forget.

“Training Gromit to help a stranger is just a way to continue using my skills to allow a person to be more independent and achieve more enjoyment of life.

“Gromit is an ambassador of joy and brings smiles to people’s faces every day,” she adds.

But what will happen next May when the time comes to say goodbye? As for the dogs, “Labs and goldens are easygoing and can handle changes like moving,” says Debbie Knatz, puppy program manager of CCI’s Northeast region. Gromit and his peers are sent to six months of professional training and evaluation before being carefully matched with just the right client or agency.

And at the graduation ceremony, when the raiser hands off the leash of the dog to the client and new best friend, “it is incredibly emotional. There isn’t a dry eye in the house,” Bentzinger says.

As for O’Neill, “Parting will be tough. There’ll be a lot of separation anxiety,” she admits. But continued contact between puppy raisers and clients is encouraged. In fact, according to Bentzinger, at least 80% of puppy raisers and clients keep in touch. Some visit and even vacation together — dogs included, of course.

There are few in these parts with as much experience in this canine coming and going as Cindy Patterson of Columbia.

Patterson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and in a sort of pay-it-forward, she raised five CCI puppies before requiring the help of one herself.

“Parting will be tough. There’ll be a lot of separation anxiety."


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As it turned out, only one of those five reached CCI’s rigorous standards. One refused to climb stairs; another could never overcome his fear of thunder and loud noises.

“They have to be bomb-proof” is how Patterson puts it.

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Other reasons for failure can be stubbornness, laziness or aggressiveness. Only half the pups make it through the demanding training program. Others may be released to more suitable endeavors or become pets.

“Where did we go wrong?” she recalls her husband, Art, lamenting.

Her son, Devin, who was in high school and served originally as a co-raiser, adopted one of the dogs as a pet, but Patterson says she chose not to “because I didn’t want to take on caring for dogs with two different routines. Now look at me!”

The retired teacher is currently assisted with the tasks of daily life by Bruno, another Lab/golden-cross raised by a college student who credits him with earning half her diploma, as he went everywhere with her. Now Bruno knows to climb in Patterson’s lap to control her tremor disorder, attends her art and yoga classes, and vacations with the family at bed-and-breakfasts and hotels. He recently assisted with a presentation on service dogs, embodying the Americans with Disabilities Act definition of service animals as "dogs that are individually trained to work or perform tasks for people with disabilities."

And although her first service dog Karlyle has hung up his “reporting for duty” yellow cape and retired, he’s been adopted as a pet by the Patterson family. (This option is available to clients when “their” service dogs retire and almost all take it, unless medically incapable, in which case other family members often step up, according to Bentzinger.)

Both dogs perform basic tasks like opening and closing doors and drawers, but Karlyle prefers to be "the closer" — that was always is his favorite job, and if Bruno is not around Patterson still lets him do so. Bruno prefers opening and tugging anyway. In the active role now, Bruno also picks up items Patterson drops and not long ago pulled off her socks.

While Karlyle is a permanent member of the household, and now claimed by Cindy’s husband as his very own, Cindy thinks back about giving up those pups she raised.

Just when she had trained each one to be a model canine citizen, she had to turn it over and start again.

Patterson had always thought of herself as a teacher and saying goodbye “was as hard as it was for me to give up teaching" because of illness.

More than 1,200 puppies are being raised by such volunteers. Bentzinger quotes one of CCI’s longtime puppy raisers to explain:

“‘It’s like raising children. When they get old enough, they go off to college. When they’re done with college, you don’t want them to move back home, do you? You want them to go out, find a job, be happy and make a difference.’

“That’s exactly what these dogs are doing.”

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