Training dogs to help others


By Linda Dillman
Staff Writer

Kate Bliven with Kary the golden retriever.
Kate Bliven with Kary the golden retriever.

Volunteers like Kate Bliven and her mother, Ann Culek, both of Canal Winchester, are changing lives by raising puppies to serve as canine companions for people with disabilities.

Canine Companions for Independence is a non-profit organization that provides  trained assistance dogs and support.

Puppies are placed with volunteers like Bliven and Culek for socialization and obedience training. Between the ages of 15 and 18 months the puppies return to one of five regional training centers across the country for six months of training.

“We had thought about volunteering to raise an assistance dog for a while, but looked into Canine Companions for Independence after reading about a couple who raised CCI puppies,” said Bliven, who, along with her mother, applied a year ago and received their golden retriever, Kary, in May 2015.

Bliven said selection is based on a volunteer’s ability to meet financial and time responsibilities and who has the experience to care for and train a dog.

“I never had a puppy growing up and this was an opportunity to have that experience without having to commit to having a dog for years to come,” said Bliven. “I started college this year and we thought either we do this now or never.”

Bliven and Culek socialized Kary by exposing her to new people and places while making the dog comfortable in different situations. Obedience skills, house breaking, and manners were taught.

“We start teaching some of the 40 commands they will learn like ‘under’ so they crawl under a table or bench to stay out of the way in a public place, or ‘up,’ so they will put their front paws up on counters to prepare them for assisting those in wheelchairs or with mobility problems,” said Bliven. “All of this is to prepare them for advanced training and hopefully their future as working dogs.”

Canine Companions train four types of assistance dogs to master specialized commands: service dogs, skilled companions, hearing dogs and facility dogs. After completing training, the dogs are teamed with a graduate during a two week training period. All Canine Companions dogs and services are provided free. The organization is funded by private contributions.

Life with Kary has temporarily brought energy and a bit more fur to the household.

“I’ve never had a puppy or a dog that likes to play, so the amount of energy she brings to our family is great,” said Bliven. “She also brings a lot of hair, which is a change from life with just our poodle. After a bad day, she’s always there with her tail wagging.”

When the puppy first arrived, Bliven said it was rough having to get up at night to take her out and discovering Kary eating one of her favorite socks, but Bliven said the experience was worth it.

“A rewarding and interesting aspect is taking her out into public areas that people are not used to seeing a dog in,” said Bliven. “She wears her CCI vest and accompanies me out to stores and restaurants and even came to my high school graduation. You have to be a people person to do this because everyone wants to talk with you, but that’s okay because I love telling people about CCI and the work they do.”

Although Bliven and Culek knew the relationship was a temporary one, they remembered there was someone out there who needed Kary more than they.

“Most people say to sad it must be that we have to give her up after over a year of taking care of her,” said Bliven. “To us, Kary is our dog that we love to cuddle and makes us smile and we love to be around, but to someone with disabilities, she’s their independence. Puppy raising isn’t for everyone, as it takes a lot of time and money, but it’s a worthwhile investment.”

Kary now goes to advanced training where she could be released at any time for a variety of reasons ranging from medical problems to behavioral issues. If the dog makes it through the process, she will be matched with a disabled person and go through two weeks of team training.

According to Bliven, less than half of the dogs who enter the program become a companion. Expectations are high and puppy raisers get the opportunity to meet the person who is paired with the dog at a special graduation ceremony.

“It is very moving to see the puppy raiser turn the leash over to the person receiving the dog whose life will change,” said Bliven.

For information, contact Canine Companions for Independence at 800-572-2275.


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