Leaving their puppy raisers for the last time, canine graduates crossed the stage with their new owners on Friday, Aug. 4 to receive graduation medals and begin lives as service companions. Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) celebrated the graduation ceremony at the Canine Companions for Independence Kinkeade Campus at Baylor Scott and White Health in Irving.
“CCI is a non-profit assistance dog organization,” said Sarah McCracken, the program manager. “We place dogs for people with disabilities completely free of charge. This ceremony is one we do four times a year where we actually match the dogs with the individuals.”
CCI was founded in 1975 in Santa Rosa, California and now has five different regional training centers across the country.
“This facility is a partnership with Baylor Scott and White Health,” McCracken said. “We opened up in November 2015. Since we opened, we have had people who always wanted an assistance dog, but couldn’t get to California or any other place that had it. Now, this is a possibility for them.”
CCI trains four different types of dogs: service dogs that assist adults with physical disabilities by performing daily tasks; hearing dogs for the deaf and hard of hearing, who alert their owners of certain sounds; facility dogs, who work with people in special settings like education, criminal justice, or healthcare; and skilled companions, who will enhance independence for children and adults.
“We have over 100 puppy raisers in our south central facility right now,” McCracken said. “When they turn in for professional training, we have three trainers on staff that do six to nine months of professional training.”
“It’s a lot of work [being a puppy raiser]” said Diane Greytak, a puppy trainer whose dog graduated. “It’s a wonderful thing to do, and then it becomes very sad when you have to turn them in. When they graduate, it’s wonderful again. It really has some highs and lows.”
Greytak trained a black Labrador named Caesar.
“This is my eighth dog,” Greytak said. “When you consider two years for each dog, I have been doing this for 16 years.”
“I like to see the light bulb come on with them. When they finally get something, and then it finally stays with them. I think it’s wonderful.”
The assistance dogs are trained in over 40 commands, including turning light switches off and on, opening doors, pulling wheelchairs, and picking up items.
“We need more puppy raisers,” Greytak said. “We have many people who need dogs. We don’t have enough puppy raisers to get them to a point where they can go into professional training. If anyone out there is even considering it, they need to look into the program and do it for us.”
CCI breeds Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and a mix breed of the two.
“We are a national organization, but this facility is still fairly new.” said Courtney Craig, the public relations coordinator. “We are always looking for volunteers, especially volunteer puppy raisers. People would raise these dogs for a year and a half and generously turn them in back over to us, so they can be trained professionally and hopefully be given to someone with a disability. Our graduates are extremely grateful for these dogs.
“[The dogs] truly change the lives [of people with disabilities]. Whether it’s picking up dropped items or opening doors. They are giving them enhanced independence they didn’t have before.”
Around 35 to 45 percent of the puppies that go through the training will graduate from the program and become a certified skilled assistance dog. The ones that do not pass the program will go on to become therapy dogs, guide dogs, law enforcement or search and rescue dogs.