How Canine Companions provide independence to the disabled
When Bonnie Bergin founded Canine Companions in Santa Rosa, CA, back in July 1975, it was with the idea of having dogs play a role in serving disabled people after seeing burros be used in a similar manner overseas. In the 45 years that have elapsed, the nonprofit has become the nation’s first and largest service dog organization that provides this assistance to adults, children and veterans with disabilities at no charge. Given the fact that the expenses that go into the raising and training of each animal can be in excess of $50,000, the generosity of donors and volunteers has been key to enabling this program to exist and thrive for so long. It all begins with a breeding program that finds Canine Companions exclusively using Labrador Retrievers, golden retrievers and crosses of these two breeds according to Canine Companions public relations and marketing coordinator John Bentzinger.
“We have our own breeding program where, for our purposes, we find [these breeds] make for the perfect service dog,” Bentzinger said. “Goldens are smart, really strong and can pull a manual wheelchair. Labs are really eager to please, so they respond well to food rewards and stimulation so they’re easier to train. When you combine those traits, that makes for a really ideal service dog. When the puppies are born out in California at our national headquarters, they’re weaned from their moms at eight weeks old and then flown out into the waiting arms of volunteers all over the country. We call these people volunteer puppy raisers.”
For retirees like Massapequa residents Bob Goldfarb and Pam Recchio, who have raised nine future service dogs for Canine Companions between them, the next year and a
half to 18 months is spent laying the groundwork for training the dogs.
“They are responsible for socializing the dog, teaching them basic commands and making sure the young puppy is well-rounded in all types of social situations,” Bentzinger explained. “We instruct volunteers on how to teach the dogs commands, so they become the building blocks of the advanced commands [puppies will learn] with our professional instructors later on. Then we ask them [the puppy raisers] to do something really hard—they have to say goodbye to them.”
The next step on the puppy’s side of the slate is moving on to Canine Companions’ Medford campus, where professional instructors wait to teach them upwards of 40 advanced commands that are usable to a person with disabilities.
“[The dogs] learn how to open and close doors, turn light switches on and off with a major learned job being the ability to pick up dropped items,” Bentzinger said. “If you’re someone that uses a manual wheelchair and you maybe don’t have manual dexterity in your upper body—you might be constantly dropping things. On command, these dogs can pick up an item as small as a dime and put them in your hands or your lap. So you don’t have to ask someone all the time. Can you imagine what that does for your caregiver who doesn’t have to worry about that all the time? You can leave them alone for a time and not be worried. It’s just amazing to see this happen.”
Other tasks the dogs are trained to perform are tugging open a door or drawer, pulling a laundry basket or helping with a sock or jacket, pushing with their nose to shut a drawer, opening a door with an automatic push plate and pulling a lightweight manual wheelchair over a short distance. Given the rigor that’s involved with learning so much, it’s not surprising that only about 50 percent of dogs that enter the program go on to graduate. As for disabilities served, they include, but are not limited to, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, arthritis and cerebral palsy. Most recently in 2019, the program expanded to include veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a fact Bentzinger is particularly proud of.
“We’ve always served veterans with physical disabilities, but this is the first time we served veterans with so-called ‘silent injuries’ with a primary diagnosis,” he said. “The dogs have a specific set of commands that are really neat to help ameliorate symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTS) before they become a debilitating event. On command, they’ll stand behind the veteran to create space in a crowded environment or in front. They’ll turn on lights in a darkened room before the veteran enters. They’ll do nightmare interruption. There’s just a whole list of specific commands they dogs will do to relieve symptoms of PTS. Some of the things I’ve seen—guys who haven’t gone out in public in months or years are now able to enjoy things with their families—the difference a dog like that makes to them is nothing short of miraculous.”
For people who might be eligible for being matched to a dog, there is a process that begins with an online application and proceeds to an in-person interview. Its the final two weeks of the process where the prospective humans wind up staying at the Canine Companions Medford campus free of charge, where they learn the ins and outs of owning a companion dog.
“During these two weeks, we’re teaching the humans how to use the 40-plus commands, how to work with their dog and how to care for their dog,” Bentzinger said. “We have lectures and field trips to local businesses and veterinarians come in and lecture on canine care. At the end of the two weeks, we have a beautiful graduation ceremony, where we invite volunteer puppy raisers to attend and they ceremoniously hand the leashes over to the new team. It’s a really neat and emotional moment. Most of the time the volunteers and the person who receives the dog form a lifelong bond.”
Heightening awareness and raising money for Canine Companions is paramount, which is why DogFest, the organization’s national signature event, plays such a crucial role.
“DogFest is a way for our volunteers to help organize and support Canine Companions and introduce new people to the organization,” Bentzinger said. “One of the highlights is people can form teams to go out and fundraise through any number of avenues. People have bake sales, walks and all kinds of different things to raise money for their DogFest team. The day of the event is kind of a big free community event. What’s cool about it is that people can bring their own dogs. There aren’t a lot of venues for that. There will be vendors, service dog demonstrations, a walk around the perimeter of the park parade, costume contests, music and different things like that. People can socialize with different pet owners and learn more about how service dogs help people with disabilities.”
DogFest Long Island-NYC will be held on Saturday, Sept. 24 at Marjorie Post Park located at 451 Unqua Rd. in Massapequa Park from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visit www.Canine.org/DogFestLongIslandNYC for more information and to register. Visit www.canine.org to learn more about Canine Companions.