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For the week of January 17 through January 23, 2001

Canine companions

Dogs aid freedom, independence of disabled

Express Staff Writer

Imagine dropping your keys as you are about to open your door and having no way of picking them up because you are a quadriplegic.

Next, imagine your faithful companion dog retrieving them for you, and placing them gently in your lap.

This rare type of interdependence offers a form of freedom for many people with disabilities.

Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), formed in 1975, is a nonprofit national organization based in Santa Rosa, Calif. It offers a way to exist in the world with more independence and with a great deal more confidence.

There are four types of dogs trained for placement. Hearing Dogs alert their owners to sounds such as telephones, doorbells, and smoke alarms; Facility Dogs accompany professional caregivers who work in physical therapy and rehabilitation. Skilled Companion Dogs are for people with physical, developmental or emotional disabilities. Service Dogs are for people with mobility challenges, most frequently for those in wheelchairs.

The process starts with the breeders. The Wood River valley has one CCI breeder, Ann Lucini Williams in Ketchum.

The breeders have been selected by CCI to breed dogs solely for their ability to become one of the four types of companion dogs.

Dogs are bred for temperament, health and intelligence. Most of the dogs are Lab and golden retriever mixes.

After being weaned, the pups are sent through a puppy raising program in the home of a volunteer. The puppy raiser is required to have a contained yard, be able to attend obedience classes with the pup and take the dog along constantly.

Nationwide there are over 800 active volunteer puppy raisers, 254 of them in the Northwest.

Williams is also a puppy raiser. Usually at a rate of about once a year, with some overlap, she raises a dog to be obedient and socialized in all areas of life. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the dog, which wears a yellow assistance puppy cape, is allowed to accompany her almost anywhere she goes---into restaurants, onto planes and into stores.

After a year or so with the puppy raiser, the dogs are delivered to one of CCIís four training centers where the dogs then go through advanced training to officially become a canine companion.

Williams, who is both a local real estate agent and a property manager, first became interested in this program when she saw a woman at the Denver airport with a dog wearing the Canine-Companion-in-training cape. Since that day over five years ago, she has raised six puppies, one of whom became a breeder.

Nancy Foust, CCIís Northwest director, called Williams a woman with many hats, including that of a board member for the Northwest chapter of CCI and a tireless fund raiser.

At the moment, Carole, Williamsí golden retriever and lab mix breeding dog, has just weaned eight pups, which Williams then delivered by car (single handedly) to the training center in Santa Rosa. Unlike Williams, Foust said, most breeders live within 100 miles of the training centers.

"Thatís very definitely called loyalty," Foust said.

One pup from that litter, Alfre, she has kept to raise until its time to go to advanced training. Williams also has an eight-month-old named ML, who is still in training.

Only half the dogs bred, raised and trained for CCI make it through to graduation, Williams said. Dogs that donít become companions are offered back to the puppy raiser, or become breeders.

CCI has provided 919 dogs to disabled people, solely through donations. There is no fee for the CCI dogs they are given.

During an intensive, two-week course with the dog, the prospective owner learns how to control the dog with voice commands and to teach it tasks such as carrying a briefcase into the office and then opening it or pulling a wheelchair from the side for those who do not have the strength to propel their chairs.

In a video of the training process provided by CCI, one of the final tests requires the wheelchair-bound owners and their dogs to wait below a balcony. The devilish trainers then toss hundreds of tennis balls down at them. Admirably, the dogs never move from the sides of their owners.

The canine companions and their people graduate in a moving public ceremony where the puppy raiser hands off the leash and the companion dog to the new owner.

Each working pair of synergized dependents is called a graduate team, and until a replacement dog is needed due to retirement or death, they live together in the most communal of master/dog relationships.

The wait list to have a trained CCI dog is three years, and recently the Northwest list was closed due to a serious back log.

In December, through Williams, CCI was awarded a grant from the Idaho Community Foundation. The $2,500 grant goes directly to an Idaho canine companion recipient. Training costs nearly $10,000 per dog before it is placed in a recipientís home.

"The more money we raise, the more dogs we are able to put out," Williams said.

In that vein, Williams chairs a fund-raising dinner and auction in Ketchum every October at the River Run Lodge. Last yearís event raised over $28,000.

Opening doors, turning on the lights, sitting still and obediently, no matter what temptation is thrown at them, these dogs are more than just handy companions for people with disabilities. They are miracles, whose presence enables confidence and independence to flourish. And people like Annie Williams are the makers of these miracles.





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