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Local couples raise service dogs; give recipients a new leash on life

Megan Schiffres

by Megan Schiffres

The prospect of nurturing a puppy for a year-and-a-half only to hand it over to a stranger sounds heartbreaking, but for volunteers involved in Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), raising a service dog for someone in need can be a moving and ultimately fulfilling experience.

“If you could see how much good they do, you could easily do it,” said Bryna Brennan, a local puppy raiser for CCI.

Founded in 1975, CCI is a national nonprofit provider of assistance dogs which breeds, trains and pairs service animals with facilities like hospitals and rehabilitation centers or to individuals living with disabilities.

“This is all done at no cost to the recipient, thanks to the generosity of our donors. It costs in excess of $50,000 to raise and train each dog,” said John Bentzinger, public relations and marketing coordinator for CCI.

Hundreds of golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and crosses between the two breeds are born every year at CCI’s headquarters in Santa Rosa, Calif., where the puppies are weaned for eight weeks before being flown to one of the organization’s six regional headquarters across the country. The puppies are then adopted by volunteers who bring them home to be raised, trained and socialized.

“I think the most important thing we can give each and every dog is all of our love so that they grow up confident, happy, healthy and to totally trust humans,” said Brennan, who is raising her sixth dog for CCI with her husband, Elliot Levinson.

The Heathsville couple began raising service dogs in 2012 as a way to occupy their time in retirement, and say they instantly fell in love with the organization, the puppies they were assigned to care for, and the people in need who would ultimately receive them.

“It’s so enriching for us,” Brennan said. “It’s so great to have a puppy around and they’re so amazing to work with and to train.”

Puppy raisers for CCI are responsible for training their dogs by teaching them 31 basic commands. Raisers in the Northern Neck attend bi-monthly training sessions in either Richmond or Gloucester counties which provide them with the opportunity to consult professionals on dog training problems and to form a community with other raisers in the area.

“I had never had real, true experience with training and that scared me at first because I don’t know if I’m doing it right. But because you have all these other people working at the same time as you, you have people to talk to and get suggestions from if you’re having difficulties,” said Kristen White, another resident of Heathsville raising dogs for CCI with her husband, Robert White.

Raisers are also responsible for socializing their puppies with other dogs and with humans. They do this by taking the dogs with them everywhere they go, just like their recipients will, and teaching the puppies to be calm and comfortable in public spaces.

“We get to have a reason to get up in the morning. We get to help people who desperately need it,” Kristen said.

After about a year-and-a-half, the puppies are retrieved by CCI and begin a six-month period of intensive professional training where they learn over 40 advanced commands that are useful to a person with disabilities. During that time, instructors have a chance to create a detailed evaluation of each dog, and based on the dog’s strengths, a person with disabilities who is on their waiting list is invited to attend two weeks of training at their regional headquarters and be matched with an assistance dog.

“Our standards are exceedingly high. Only about five out of 10 dogs actually make it through this program, so the ones that graduate really are the cream of the crop. Right now there is about a-year-and-a-half wait to be invited to team training. This is why puppy raising is so important to us, the more puppies that are being raised, the more people we can serve,” Bentzinger said.

Dogs raised by these two Heathsville-area couples have gone to work across the country providing individual and facility-level care to people in need through both physical and emotional support.

At the Staunton Victim-Witness Program, which supports victims of crimes, families, and witnesses during the court process, a service dog raised by Brennan and Levinson can usually be found hard at work. Murph, a yellow Lab with a quiet and loving disposition, primarily provides emotional support to survivors of abuse and sexual assault, especially children, who rely on him for comfort and reassurance when navigating the justice system.

“Murph works with me throughout that process. With children, a lot of times he’s with me at the advocacy center where the child is interviewed and then basically follows them through the criminal justice process. Or with domestic assault victims, really any victim of a crime who suffered some type of trauma, that’s where he’s especially good. He’s really just calming to everybody,” said Janet Balser, director of the Staunton program.

The second dog Brennan and Levinson raised for CCI, a regal black Lab named Lucien II, was matched with Duane Kilmer in May 2016. According to Kilmer, who has suffered from debilitating orthopedic issues for over 20 years, having Lucien has made an immeasurable difference in his quality of life, mobility and pain management.

“Life-changing, that’s the only way to say it,” said Kilmer. “Lucien has a snuggle command. So when my back acts up I can tell him snuggle and he will lay down my back, I’ll lay in the fetal position and he’ll lay against me, and it’s a 102-degree pressurized heating pad that doesn’t move and that alleviates the nerve pressure over time.”

Kilmer credits Lucien with helping him dramatically reduce the medications he takes to manage his pain, and he has been able to resume an active lifestyle including working as varsity coach of the Kings Park/Commack Ice Hockey team since he received Lucien from CCI.

“The kids wanted to change the team name to the Hounds, that’s how much they’ve taken to him,” Kilmer said.

To get involved in raising a puppy for CCI, visit www.cci.org.

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