Canine Companions for Independence: Providing Assistance Dogs For Those In Need
Canine Companions for Independence is a nationwide non-profit organization that has placed 4,000 assistance dogs with handlers since 1975. Each service dog is trained for 2 years before placement – at no cost to the handler. Recently I had the opportunity to interview Jennifer Pottheiser, a volunteer puppy raiser, about this amazing organization.
Karen Wang: Please share a brief history of Canine Companions for Independence. How did the organization get started and how has it expanded?
Jennifer Pottheiser: Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) was founded in Santa Rosa, California in 1975, and the first service dog was placed in June of 1976. Over the next 8 years, 100 teams would graduate with a working dog. Between the summer of 1987 and the fall of 1989, CCI expanded – opening 4 regional training centers across the country. The Northeast Regional Center in Medford, Long Island has graduated over 650 Canine Companion Teams, made possible by over 175 active puppy raisers.
KW: How did you get involved with CCI?
JP: I found out about CCI when they were holding their annual Paws for the Holiday photo sessions with Santa at a local vets office. I loved what they were doing as an organization and I got involved as a volunteer and then later on as a puppy raiser.
KW: How do you support the organization as a puppy raiser?
JP: As a puppy raiser, I will spend 18 months preparing my CCI puppy for life as a working dog. I teach my puppy canine behavior and several CCI commands. Canine Companions for Independence has its own breeding program at their National Headquarters in Santa Rosa, California. Labradors, Golden Retrievers and crosses of the two are bred for training. While it costs close to $40,000 to breed, raise and train a CCI working dog, the canines are provided to their recipients at no charge.
KW: How long is the training period for your dogs? What does training involve?
JP: CCI puppies are born and bred in the Santa Rosa, California area. They live with their canine siblings and mother for 8 weeks, at which point they are sent to one of CCI’s regional centers and placed with a puppy raiser.
As puppy raisers, it is your job to teach your CCI pup good household manners and socialization. Once the puppy is about 6 months old, you start exposing the dog to things it will encounter as a working dog. This often starts out with a short trip to the bank or post office, and as the dog gets comfortable, it becomes a trip to the supermarket and a visit with their puppy raiser to a doctor’s appointment where the dog must learn the appropriate way to act. It is a lot of work to be a puppy raiser, but the joy in watching your puppy excel is very rewarding.
After 18 months, they are returned to CCI’s regional campus where they undergo 6 months of advanced and highly specific training to become a working dog.
KW: What happens in the advanced training?
JP: By the time recipients arrive on campus to be placed with their dog, the canines have spent 6 to 9 months training. The first semester, which lasts three months, reviews and builds upon the basic obedience commands the dogs learned as puppies. It is during this semester that the dogs begin to work around the wheelchair and learn the retrieve command. Those that pass the first semester continue into their second semester of training.
The second three-month semester finishes the commands the dogs will need to know such as pull, and light-switch. They learn over 40 commands and practice working in different environments. During training, the dogs are screened to see if they truly have what it takes to become a CCI assistance dog. Those that do prepare for Team Training, where the dogs are paired with a recipient and both human and dog are trained to work together.
Any CCI dog that makes it through training has learned the skills to work as either a facility, skilled companion or service dog. At the end of the two week Team Training there is a graduation ceremony that the Puppy Raisers are invited to. Up on stage, diplomas are handed out and the leashes are ceremoniously handed over from the Puppy Raiser to the new Grad Team. It is incredibly emotional. There isn’t a dry eye in the house! A long-time puppy raiser explained it like this: “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.”
KW: What happens to the dogs that are unable to complete training successfully?
JP: Canine Companions for Independence has strict guidelines and requirements for their working dogs. As a result, only 40% of the puppies that enter the advanced program ultimately pass. Dogs that don’t successfully complete the program are usually returned to their puppy raiser to live out their life as a highly skilled house pet. Many of the puppy raisers then choose to have their dogs certified for pet therapy.
FC: What would you like people to know about CCI’s work?
JP: CCI’s motto, “Exceptional dogs for exceptional people,” is truly a testament to the good works that change lives every day!
In Part 2 of this interview, Jennifer will explain the roles of service dogs, skilled companion animals and facility dogs.
*photos used with permission from Jennifer Pottheiser CCI