Anyone who has ever witnessed a service dog helping their human companion navigate a busy intersection or exit a crowded bus, understands how easy it is to imagine that these superhero pups never went through a cute-but-naughty puppy stage — never chewed a shoe, decimated an entire bag of cat food or woke up howling for attention at 4 a.m.
In reality, these pups started out just like every other dog.
Susan Manuel, of Camas, knows this better than most.
A “puppy raiser” for the California-based group, Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), Manual has been helping raise would-be assistance dogs for the past decade.
“They don’t have to be perfect,” Manuel says of the puppies that make it through to the advanced training. “They look for a happy, healthy dog that likes to work.”
Manuel recently said goodbye to her seventh CCI puppy, “Maggie,” an agreeable 20-month-old golden retriever-labrador mix that had been Manuel’s sidekick for the past 18 months.
“Isn’t it hard to let them go?” a reporter asks Manuel, when she talks about taking Maggie to California for her advanced training and eventual placement with a companion.
“That’s the No. 1 question we get,” Manuel says, smiling at Maggie, who is sitting obediently near her feet. “It is hard … but we do this to help people.”
Seeing “their puppies” go on to become capable canine companions, helping people all over the country, including the hearing-impaired, disabled children and even combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, is worth the sadness that comes with saying goodbye, Manuel says.
Of course, many of the dogs who go through advanced training may not actually become a canine companion.
“They have very high standards (for canine companions),” says Millie Bowens, a CCI puppy raiser from Vancouver. “Puppy raisers get first rights of adoption.”
They also have first rights when those puppies that do become assistance dogs retire. Bowens is currently living with the first puppy she raised, 12-year-old Wanda, a retired canine companion. She also is in the middle of raising “Tanveer,” a 13-month-old pup that will move into his advanced training in about seven months.
The puppy raisers say it takes a village to raise a canine companion.
First, there are the volunteers who care for the CCI breeder dogs and “midwife” the newborn puppies for the first eight weeks of their lives. Next come the puppy raisers like Manuel and Bowens. The puppy raisers provide basic obedience training to the puppies, socialize them and get them ready for their advanced training, which begins when they are around 20 months old.
Manuel and Bowens say they try to expose their puppies to every type of situation before they head to advanced training. Manuel takes her puppies to work at Hewlett Packard. Bowens does “puppy push-ups” with her pups when they’re only a couple months old, to help them understand how to sit, stand, lay down. The women take their puppies to restaurants around town and introduce them to other dogs, children and animals. At home, they may turn the puppy on their back and play with their paws, to help them get used to being groomed and examined — a trait they say their veterinarians always appreciate.
Essentially, the puppy raisers are getting the dogs ready for any type of situation they might be in once they head out into the world as canine companions.
The CCI community becomes like a giant, extended family, Manuel says.
“You have this connection to people all over the country,” she says about being a CCI puppy raiser.
The CCI group also has support from several Lions Clubs around the country. Camas Lions Club member Steve Hofmaster is involved with his club’s Lions Project for Canine Companions for Independence. His 3-year-old pet dog, “Fremont,” was a CCI puppy who couldn’t become a canine companion due to a physical problem with one of his elbows.
All three of the local CCI volunteers gush about the program and about seeing the end result of their work raising puppies and, for Hofmaster and his Lions Club, educating the public about CCI and its canine companions.
They say CCI is always looking for potential puppy raisers who can provide a safe, caring home for the potential canine companions for about 18 months. To be a puppy raiser, you must be 18 years old (or have a parent or legal guardian sign on as a co-puppy raiser), have no other puppies under the age of 1 year old in the house, agree to the terms and conditions set by CCI, be able to pay for the puppy’s food, as well as medical and transportation needs, and agree to return the puppy upon request.
To learn more about becoming a puppy raiser, or to volunteer or fundraise for CCI in other ways, visit cci.org.