Story and photos by Laticia Headings 

Most dog lovers dream of getting a puppy just once in their life. This past December, Colleen Roberts got her 14th Canine Companions puppy just in time for the holidays. 

As a volunteer puppy raiser, Roberts is part of a nationwide network of over 4,700 people who donate their time, energy, and money to raise puppies for Canine Companions for Independence, the largest non-profit provider of service dogs in the country. 

Founded in 1975, Canine Companions breeds and trains service dogs for adults, children, and veterans with physical and developmental disabilities other than blindness. Through their powerful program, the non-profit serves 65 different disabilities and works to unite highly trained service dogs with qualified recipients, free of charge. To date, over 6,500 service dogs have been placed with recipients. 

“Since I was little, I’ve been obsessed with dogs,” Roberts says, whose husband, Richard, is the huntsman for the Middleburg Hunt. “I then met my husband and it was a perfect match because of our passion for understanding dogs. Putting your love and affection into raising a puppy for someone who needs and appreciates it is one of the best feelings in the world. In most instances, you share a unique bond with that person for the rest of the working dog’s life.” 

Roberts became involved with Canine Companions in 2004 after she met fellow Middleburg residents, Carina Elgin and her eight-year old daughter, Caroline, in a Marshall vet clinic. Caroline had just been paired with a black lab named Sajen. “We had an amazing conversation and Caroline just lit up as she talked about and showed me all the things her dog could do,” Roberts says. “Carina gave me a puppy raising pamphlet and I walked out of there thinking, ‘This is for me, this is my calling’ … so that night, I applied and it was a week later I had my first Canine Companions puppy.”

Volunteer puppy raisers keep the puppies for up to a year and a half. “The puppy raisers are really the backbone of the organization,” Debra Dougherty, the Canine Companions executive director, says. “They are very selfless. Taking a dog for 18 months and then giving it back is not an easy thing to do. Without our volunteers to help us with training and socialization during that 18 months, we wouldn’t be able to fulfill our mission.” 

“It’s a very emotional journey but with every dog you get, your heart gets bigger,” Roberts says.

Service dogs are specifically trained to perform physical tasks such as opening a door or retrieving a dropped item. The dogs are utilized in specific situations: a one-on-one “team,” defined as the dog and the recipient, paired with a professional in a healthcare, criminal justice, or educational setting, or as part of a skilled companion team which is made up of a child or adult, dog, and the supporting adult handler. 

There are broad categories of service dogs, including guide dogs for the visually impaired, hearing dogs for people who are deaf, service dogs for people with mobility issues, and medical alert dogs that can warn of an impending medical event. 

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are protected and allowed to be in public spaces such as restaurants, stores, and public buildings. “Service dogs empower people by helping them to do things that may be difficult to do on their own,” Roberts says, who graduated from The University of Massachusetts with an equine degree. “To have a dog to help with tasks prevents an individual from having to ask other people. It’s a great feeling of independence.”

The bond between a person and their service dog goes far beyond physical measure. There is an emotional connection that is invaluable to both human and canine, rooted in mutual trust and affection. 

Inspired by Roberts, 10-year old Gwenevere Putnam suggested to her parents that they apply to the puppy raising program after years of teaching circus tricks to the family dogs, Dutch and Emma. “I have a real passion for teaching dogs tricks, but I really wanted to raise service dogs because they will actually help people,” the enthusiastic fifth grader says.  

On Nov. 24, 2020, the Putnams got their first Canine Companion puppy named Jensen V. Within three weeks, Gwenevere had mastered teaching Jensen eight commands. “We’re friends with Miss Colleen and she helps a lot and there’s also a guide book for first timers,” the young animal lover says, who lives down the road from Roberts. 

Gwenevere’s parents, Bess and Steven Putnam, are legally responsible for Jensen when in public (puppy raisers must be 18), but at home, Gwenevere is in charge of the feeding, training, and attending local puppy classes, which Roberts co-teaches. All puppy raisers must agree to a strict set of guidelines that includes teaching the dog 40 basic commands, filling out a puppy progress report every month, attending training classes twice a month, and socializing the puppy at appropriate age markers. 

“We are a very volunteer driven organization and work closely with each of them to ensure that the puppies are being trained along the same continuum so that when the volunteers give them back to us, they’re all in an equal place and have the same kind of skills,” Dougherty says. Applicants to the puppy raising program are vetted by a thorough application process and phone interview before being accepted. First time puppy raisers also complete a half-day orientation in a regional office and agree to cover food and medical costs.

Every year, Canine Companions breeds 900-1,100 puppies at their headquarters in Santa Rosa, California. They use golden and labrador retrievers (and a cross of the two) because both are social, easily trainable, food-motivated, have a good work ethic, and can quickly adapt to new situations. “These breeds transfer easily and with the least amount of anxiety from person to person,” Dougherty says.

The first eight weeks of a puppy’s life is spent with breeder caretakers. The puppies are then placed with a puppy raiser for the next 15 to 18 months, during which time the puppy is socialized in many different situations. “That’s the most important job that people do for us,” Dougherty says. “We don’t know where the dogs are going to be placed or who they’re going to be matched with, so they need to have a lot of socialization to remain calm in any kind of environment.” 

Once the puppy raising process is complete, the dog goes to one of six Canine Companions regional training facilities for six months of professional training where the dogs are taught over 40 advanced commands that are useful to people with disabilities. Not all dogs will graduate. “There’s a two-year process that goes into creating a service dog and there are a lot of people involved,” Dougherty says.

The application process to get a Canine Companions dog is rigorous. Applicants must provide references and medical records, and attend an in-person assessment before being put on a waiting list. Once approved, they’re invited to a regional two-week group training. During this time, observations are made to determine the final matches between the dogs and recipients. “When a person is invited in for a training we don’t know which dogs will be matched with them,” Dougherty says.

Although every graduate dog is fully trained, not every dog is a match for every person. The process for choosing a team is given much scrutiny. “People are placing a lot of trust in us,” Dougherty says. “There’s a lot that goes into that match in terms of knowing and understanding the applicant’s lifestyle and needs.” 

Each year, Canine Companions graduates 250 teams nationally. During the graduation ceremony, the puppy raiser ceremoniously “hands over the leash” to the recipient. In 2013, one of Roberts’ proudest puppy raising moments happened when she handed over the leash to 20-year old Forrest Allen, who was recovering from a devastating snowboarding accident that left him with a catastrophic traumatic brain injury. 

Roberts had many connections to Allen, who grew up in Middleburg, and his family prior to his accident in 2011. In fact, Roberts taught Allen how to ride a pony when he was just five years old. During a visit to the hospital, Colleen and Richard brought along their Canine Companions puppy at the time, Halle, to cheer up Allen, who was unable to walk or talk. “Halle put a smile on everyone’s face,” Roberts says. 

The visit sparked something in Allen, who was able to open his fist and toss Halle a ball. Seeing a change in Allen during the visit was the catalyst for his family to apply to the Canine Companions program. The next year, Roberts raised a puppy named Toliver, and Allen was accepted into the Canine Companions program and invited to the two-week training. He was matched with Toliver. 

“I was in shock,” Roberts says. “I raised Toliver when I was living down in Richmond so he never met Forrest. There are four or more team training classes each year, so for Toliver to be fully trained and ready to graduate in the same class that Forrest attended was amazing in and of itself. And then to learn that he and Toliver made a match was almost incomprehensible because of the remarkable chances of these stars aligning.” 

Dougherty concurs that the pairing was an extraordinary match. “It just does not happen,” she says. “I can’t think of another time where I’ve seen that happen, where the recipient of the dog actually knew the puppy raiser.”

Toliver was matched to Allen because of his emotional output when performing commands and his alert response to Allen’s voice, which was barely a whisper. Dougherty recalls watching Forrest evolve during the two-week training.

“On graduation day when Colleen turned that leash over to Toliver was pretty breathtaking!” she says. “For that to happen in a small, tight knit community like Middleburg was just mind-blowing.”

For Roberts, the moment was paramount. “I felt like this match was this perfect culmination of my years in the service dog world connecting with my personal life in a really powerful and profound way,” she says elatedly. 

In Loudoun County, there are currently 24 graduate teams and 18 puppy raisers. “Middleburg is an amazing town to raise puppies … not only are the residents and shop-keepers dog friendly, they are also knowledgeable and invested animal lovers,” Roberts says. She credits many people for helping during her 15-year tenure of puppy raising. “I couldn’t raise so many puppies without my sponsors, Dr. Renee Nolan of The Small Animal Clinic at Piedmont Equine, Jacqueline Mars and Royal Canin, and Middleburg Photo.”

Roberts intends to keep puppy raising for many years and encourages others to experience the life-changing impact a Canine Companions puppy can have on everyone involved. “Whenever people see a dog they smile,” Roberts says, beaming. “For people who need these dogs the most, they’re no longer defined by their disability, but instead they become known as the person with the really cool dog.” ML

To learn more about Canine Companions for Independence, visit cci.org

Published in the January 2021 issue of Middleburg Life.

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