Friday, April 10, 2009

The TRUTH about CCI Dogs!

Yawwwwwwn! I'm not writing today. Here's why: I have a friend named Gamay. She is famous as the only CCI puppy being raised in Buena Vista, Colorado. Her PR Mom threw out a question for all the PRs around here to answer, and my mom answered it. It's far too grownuppy for me. In fact, I don't even think it's about me. It's about some dog named Rover. Does anybody really name a dog Rover?


"Why do you spend hundreds of dollars, and invest a year and a half of attention and energy, to raise a puppy you'll give away once it is well-behaved and a huge part of your life - knowing all along that there's no guarantee the pup will 'make it'?"

This query has three questions in it: Why part with your dog? What happens to the dog? What's in it for you?

First things first. Canine Companions for Independence puppy raisers take CCI puppies into their homes, raise them, teach them basic obedience, socialize them thoroughly, and then send them away for advanced training, preparatory to their becoming service dogs and helping persons with mobility problems.

But this conflicts with popular ideas about Rover. After all, isn't your dog your pet, your property? Existing for your pleasure is Rover's job description. (Rover may not see it that way; he may see you as existing for his pleasure. Maybe you're his pet. More likely you're his wait staff and play partner. But let's not go there.)

So people ask me - sometimes in tones of reproach - "How can you get rid of that dog?" As if I had no heart and no sense!

My answer is: "Sending my dog to advanced training is not like sending him to the pound. At the pound, his future and even his life are in jeopardy, and he'll feel abandoned because he has been. Here's what it's really like: sending your child to college. And, like that child, I hope he'll graduate and get a job!"

Once in a while, there's a second question: "But aren't you attached to that dog?" The answer is really too rude to say out loud, but here it is: "Yes! What does that have to do with it?"

When my husband and I applied to be puppy raisers, we went through three interviews. Invariably, the first question was, "Are you going to be willing to give the dog back to us?" This still reminds me that Rover is my puppy only temporarily (and with strings attached). I'm privileged to have him as part of the family for a while. But he isn't my dog - he's CCI's.

Happily for my peace of mind, CCI's breeding program makes a difference. CCI breeds Labs (yellow ones and black ones), Golden Retrievers, and mixes of the two. While other dogs may - and do - serve people well, Labs and Goldens are known for their ability to adjust their loyalties. They will love you all to pieces! But when you're not there, they will love somebody else all to pieces. (Dog treats help.) Given good treatment, they're perfectly willing to adapt, not pine.

Some of the training we give our puppies is socialization. We take them to public and private places appropriate for their age and degree of training. (CCI gives us a list of places where they may and may not go.) The idea is to make them feel comfortable, not frightened, wherever they are. Since there are many puppy raisers where I live, we trade pups with one another to give them even more experience.

By the time Rover's ready for advanced training, he's so socially secure that "going off to college" isn't a big deal. When he gets there, he's surrounded by trainers and volunteers who make sure all the dogs are happy and healthy as well as schooled. Monthly "report cards" let us know how Rover's doing. If I have questions, I can call the training center. We are treated with respect and support.

If our pup does indeed "make it," we'll be told at first that Rover's in the running for a job. If all goes well, we'll hear that he has been matched with a person. That's not a guarantee that he'll graduate, but it's close enough to make plans to go to the graduation in California, where we'll meet the person Rover's going to work for and present Rover at the ceremony.

It would be hard to describe a graduation in high enough terms. To know your dog is going to change someone's life - well, it's humbling and exhilarating at the same time. You can't help but be proud of Rover, and excited that the pup you raised is going to have such an impact - and such a future - because you had the guts to do the work and then say good-bye.

But that's a success story. What about the ones who don't make it? What if Rover's a failure?

Well, Rover's definitely not a failure. He's just not cut out to be a CCI dog after all (you can't tell when he's a puppy). But most dogs aren't. A CCI dog's life is more physically demanding than the average dog's. Hip and elbow problems are common in large breeds; even if they may not be serious enough to handicap Rover's average doggy life, they may be too much for him as a service dog. A CCI dog needs to be emotionally unflappable; many dogs have fears built into their genes, as it were, that would make service work too stressful for them. Some haven't the placid nature to snooze by their person's side for three hours if that's where they're needed. And some dogs just can't say no to a passing cat, bunny, or tennis ball.

Since more dogs are released from advanced training than graduate, what happens to them?

CCI doesn't let release dogs fall through the cracks. Many go right back to the people who raised them ("Hooray - Rover's coming home next week!"), and many of those dogs serve their communities in some way or other when they get back home.

Some qualify for other jobs; CCI also has a hearing dog program, and some dogs go into training for drug-sniffing or customs work.

In addition, there's a waiting list of people eager to adopt a release dog, and why not? Wouldn't you want a dog who is already house-trained, obedience-trained, and as loving and friendly as can be? Adopting a release dog means agreeing to certain conditions that ensure Rover a happy life - and plenty of folks are willing to meet those conditions.

Is Rover a failure because he doesn't wear a blue cape? No - he has simply made a wise career change.

Not every pup in whom we invest our time and energy (and dollars) will become a service dog. But every dog will serve in some capacity - even as a beloved, um, family superintendent. Consider all the dogs turned over to shelters because of behavior problems - either their owners' or their own. CCI release dogs, on the other hand, have a tremendous record for staying with the families who adopt them. Isn't that in itself worth time and energy?


Elaine said...

My husband and I are raising our second puppy for CCI. Our first became a hearing dog, but as you have pointed out, not all pups become service dogs but all dogs serve in some capacity. Your article was fun to read, informative, and on point. Good for you. Loved it.

GTScott said...

Great article! I ran across this while trying to find the release dog application. My beloved Gemi II (03226) was what some would call a CCI "flunk out" but that just did not describe her at all. With her incredible training she quickly became the center of our house and the center of or lives. I am thankfully every day for what CCI and their puppy raisers accomplish - whether it be in the primary service or in something else.

tryingtoo said...

A wonderful post. I travel to Kansas city to pick up Kuzco II tomorrow.. My first pup Arden is in team training in Texas as we speak....This process not only changes a dog it also changes you. If you can't be a puppy raiser consider giving to CCI, its a wonderful organization.

nshedd said...

This article is amazing and perfectly describes CCI dog's destinies- whether that involves a working service dog or a different avenue. While reading the comments on this article I started tearing up when reading tryingtoo's comment. I don't know if you will ever see this, but if you do, I would love to connect, I am currently raising my first CCI dog, Kamden- Kuzco II's brother.