‘Puppy raisers’ lend a helping paw to those with disabilities

Virginia resident Casey Funk, 12, teaches black lab Jeremiah the command “ back,” a skill he will use in tight places such as buses. CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Ann Cameron Siegal

When Casey Funk, 12, gave black lab, Jeremiah, the command “Back,” he obediently backed up while facing her. Casey, who’s from Vienna, Virginia, was pretending they were on a bus, using two rows of chairs lining a narrow aisle. After reaching their seat, Casey said, “Under.” Jeremiah scooted under the seat so he wouldn’t block the aisle. Jeremiah is learning commands needed to be an assistance dog for people with disabilities.

Hannah Albus, a 12-year-old from Kensington, Maryland, received her golden retriever, Nasca, a year ago. Wearing a pink “Love is a four-legged word” T-shirt, Hannah happily demonstrates how Nasca knew commands to open and close drawers and pick up items off the floor. Nasca helps Hannah stretch her leg muscles, which have been tightened by a disease called cerebral palsy.

Canine Companions for Independence, the oldest assistance-dog organization in the country, places dogs with volunteer “puppy raisers” and gives the dogs, once trained, to people with disabilities. Assistance dogs are allowed in public places such as libraries and restaurants and on public transportation. Canine Companions dogs wear special vests in public – yellow for puppies in training and blue for graduates – to show that they are on duty.

Puppy raisers spend 18 months teaching basic commands, manners and socialization skills to prepare a dog to handle such situations as going to the store, riding a bus or navigating through crowds. They must follow rules stricter than ones used with a family pet. Off limits to Jeremiah as he learns to be an assistance dog are dog parks, human beds and table scraps.

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“I’ve learned to be more responsible and committed in teaching him properly,” said Casey, who is helping her mom raise Jeremiah.

Casey’s family will soon give Jeremiah back to Canine Companions for advanced training in Medford, New York. Although giving up the black lab will be hard, Casey said she understands “the difference he will make in someone’s life.”

Before being matched to a person with disabilities, Jeremiah will be expected to master more than 40 commands. For example, puppy raisers use the command “Up” to teach their dog to put its front paws on a wall or a table. In advanced training, the dog builds on that skill, learning to turn lights on and off, open doors by pushing a handicap button or retrieve items from a counter.

For Hannah, Nasca’s presence has boosted her independence and confidence. Not only does the dog open actual doors, but Nasca opens social doors, too. Kids approach Hannah to ask questions whenever she’s out with Nasca.

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“I took her to show and tell at school,” Hannah said with a smile.

Working with Canine Companions also gives puppy raisers reasons to smile, according to Lauren Ferraioli, this region’s puppy program manager.

“It’s the ultimate volunteer experience – having an impact on helping someone, but also having fun.”

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More volunteer puppy raisers are needed. There are hundreds of Canine Companions puppy raisers nationwide, but only about 50 percent of the dogs graduate.

– Volunteer puppy raising is a great family activity.

– Primary puppy raisers must be at least 18 years old and available for a two-day training session at the regional headquarters in Medford, New York.

– Puppy raisers are responsible for vet bills, food and other expenses. Estimated cost is $3,500 per dog, but many businesses offer discounts or donations to help program volunteers.

– To find out more, visit cci.org/puppyraising.