By Valerie Balwanz, Pampered Pets Lead Trainer
As a dog trainer, I meet many interesting people from all walks of life. One person I thought it would be fun to highlight has a very unique job – it doesn’t pay a cent and is truly a labor of love. She plays a vital, behind-the-scenes role in the training and raising of service dogs. You may have seen her around the Pampered Pets campus with her dog wearing a bright yellow cape. Meet Wendy Caldwell, puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence.
(Valerie) Tell us a little about Canine Companions for Independence.
(Wendy Caldwell) CCI is a nationwide non-profit organization that provides assistance dogs, free of charge, to people with disabilities other than blindness. There are 5 regional training centers in the U.S. I deal with the Northeast Region headquartered in NY which covers Maine down through VA. The national headquarters in is Santa Rosa, CA and is also the center which supervises the breeding of dogs that are sent out to puppy raisers. CCI breeds Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and a mix of the two. CCI tracks all of the dogs for health and temperament so that each puppy that goes to a puppy raiser has the best chance at success. My current puppy flew directly from CA to Richmond when he was 8 weeks old.
What does it mean to be a puppy raiser?
A puppy raiser takes an 8-week-old puppy into their home and raises then until the age of about 18 months, then turns them back into CCI for their professional/advanced training. While in advanced training at the CCI kennel in NY the puppies are assigned to a professional trainer who continually evaluates and trains the dogs for possible placement with a person with disabilities. After 6 months, if the dog continues to progress with their skill set, they may enter Team Training where the recipients are invited to a 2-week training session. There is a 2-year waiting period for people wishing to receive a CCI assistance dog. The dogs are matched with a person whose needs are complemented by the dog’s abilities. The people have these 2 weeks to learn how to handle the dog, learn the commands, and care for the dog. At graduation, the puppy raiser returns to NY to reunite briefly with the puppy they raised, meet the recipient and hand over the leash to the person they will be serving in a formal ceremony.
How long have you been doing this, and how many puppies have you raised?
I got my first puppy in 1995 and am currently raising my 9th puppy, Oscar.
What types of jobs have the puppies you’ve raised gone on to do?
CCI trains their dogs for four basic jobs: service dog, skilled companion, facility dogs, and hearing dogs. Two of my puppies became skilled companions and 2 became facility dogs.
Have you raised a puppy who “failed” service dog training?
Yes. Four of the 8 puppies I’ve turned in to CCI were released from the program for temperament or health issues. The puppy raiser is the first one contacted when a dog is released and they can adopt or recommend a placement with someone they know. Two of my puppies went to friends who knew them when I was raising them and two I brought home to live with me.
What type of training are you required to do with the puppy for the time he is with you?
As a puppy raiser, you are expected to provide obedience training and socialization. CCI provides a puppy raiser manual, workshop and classes to aid the Puppy Raiser in teaching good manners and basic commands. Each month the puppy raiser sends in a report on how the puppy is doing in terms of physical growth, temperament, and progression in learning the 30 basic commands. By 10 months of age the puppies should know: hurry, kennel, wait, release, sit, down, let’s go, don’t/no, drop, here, dress, roll, shake, stand, car, under, heel, side, bed, jump, off, speak, quiet, out, back, lap, turn, up, visit.
Is there anything special you are required to do with the puppy while he is in your care?
The most important part of puppy raising is exposing the puppy to a variety of people and social situations, so when they are turned in they are not surprised or upset by any situation they may encounter as a service dog. Use your imagination! These dogs may go to a big city or the country – either way they should not react to other animals or unusual people in their environment.
What is the most rewarding part of being a puppy raiser?
For me, the most rewarding thing is to interact and love this puppy who will hopefully enhance the life of someone who needs him more than I do. The impact of these dogs on the lives of the people they are matched with is very powerful and awe-inspiring for puppy raisers.
What is the hardest part of being puppy raiser?
The hardest day of puppy raising is when you turn in your puppy for advanced training andsay good-bye. You know from the start this day will come and the dog does not belong to you, but it’s still hard! I send my puppy off with encouraging words, a smile and a kiss. I hold in the tears until my puppy can’t see how much I’ll miss him. It is comforting to know these dogs are well cared for in the kennel and by the CCI staff and how CCI puts the welfare of the dog above all else.
Do you have a favorite story you’d like to share?
My first puppy, Jaye, was a success as a skilled companion. His lasting legacy is the friendship I still have with the parents of the little boy he was placed with. The little boy and Jaye are both gone now, but I stay in contact with the parents who live in Maine and we talk at least twice a year. Naturally I had high hopes for my second puppy, Rick, but I could tell almost from the start that he was not service dog material. However, I trained him to the best of my ability and shortly after I turned him in, CCI asked if I wanted to adopt him. I had thought of this possibility and had asked a friend if he was interested. When the time came, Rick was adopted by my friend and his wife who had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. Rick lived with them and their two children as a “pet” on their farm until he died at the age of 12. The wife has often told me how thankful she was to have Rick as a companion and emotional support during a very difficult time for her. Rick was a success in giving that family comfort they needed at that time, although he couldn’t meet the stringent requirements CCI expects of their graduates.
What made you want to be a puppy raiser?
In the 1990’s I discovered the author Dean Koontz, and read several of his books. The main characters in one novel were a man and his service dog. At the end of the book, Dean Koontz gave credit to CCI for inspiring him toinclude a
service dog and instructed readers to find out more about CCI. I wrote to CCI and found out about their organization and how they needed puppy raisers. This led me to contact the NY folks and after sending in my puppy raiser application, they called me and said they had a puppy for me to raise and could I come to NY to get him? That was Jaye and the rest is history. I’d like to add that since then, Dean Koontz and his wife have given generously to CCI and have even adopted retired or “released” CCI dogs, although they were never “dog people” to begin with, they are now. They continue to support the CCI mission with major donations.
Can anyone be a puppy raiser?
Yes! As long as you are willing to give something of yourself to each puppy and abide by CCI requirements, anyone can apply to be puppy raiser. Children under 18 years of age can be puppy raisers with their parent’s co-signature. Adults can be “co-raisers” if you’d like to share the responsibilities and experience with someone else. The puppies benefit from the extra variety of people and situations.
How would someone get started if they also wanted to be a puppy raiser?
Fill out a Puppy Raiser Application and/or speak with someone at the regional or national headquarters. They will give you specific details and tell you how to proceed. Visit www.cci.org for more information. If you have any inclination to become a puppy raiser, I would encourage you to give it a try. The reward of seeing the puppy you raised go to a deserving individual, who really needs their help, is the most rewarding experience of my life. Feel free to contact me, through Valerie, with any questions you may have.
Thanks to Wendy for sharing this info with me, for raising these incredible dogs, and for giving us some personal insight into what goes into the training of a service dog.
Photos courtesy Wendy Caldwell and CCI.org.