I became interested in service dogs eight years ago when I wanted to do something to make a difference in someone's life. When I saw a segment on Animal Planet about becoming a puppy raise for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), I knew that was what I wanted to do. I filled out an application, went through a screening process, and three months later I had my first puppy, the most beautiful Golden Retriever I had ever seen. I am currently training Puppy #6, a black lab/golden cross.
CCI has a very scientific breeding program at the Training Center in Santa Rosa, California. The breeder dogs live with their breeder/caretaker and are bred up to five times during their lifetime, when they are retired from service. The breeder/caretaker whelps the puppies and is responsible for their care until they reach their 8th week. Then they are taken to the Training Center where they are tattooed and given a series of shots.
Next they are sent to puppy raisers all over the country to be trained, loved, and socialized for the next year.
The puppy raiser is responsible for teaching 26 basic commands such as sit, down, stand, under, bed, kennel, dress, speak, car, shake, visit, lap, up, release, off, and many more. But the main responsibility of the puppy raiser is to produce a well behaved dog and to socialize it. We take the puppy everywhere that a person with a disability might want to go. My puppies have gone to my job, grocery stores, restaurants, malls, and stores. For the most part I am very welcome everywhere I go. Sometimes I am questioned because "you're not blind". It is then up to me to educate these people that there are service dogs for more than just the blind.
After the puppy has been with me for around a year, it is time for the next phase of its training. The dog goes on to advanced training at one of our training centers, where it is trained by professional trainers. After 6-8 months, the dog is ready to be placed with a person with a disability. These dogs are given free of charge to people who need them. At any time the dog will be released if it is felt it doesn't have what it takes to be a service dog. There is a waiting list of people who would love to have one of these dogs that is not right for service dog work, but would make a great pet.
The most common question I am asked is "How can you give it up after getting so attached?" My response to that question is "I am not doing this for myself. Someone is on a waiting list right now who needs this dog more than I could ever want it. When you do something for someone else, you get back more than you could ever imagine. It is the most rewarding thing I have ever done."