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Canine Companions Help Improve Quality of Life for Those in Need

Ken Smith

The N.J. chapter of Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) visited Princeton this past Saturday to share information about the organization and its mission. Founded in 1975, CCI provides highly trained dogs to assist adults and children with disabilities. CCI's motto describes it best.

"Exceptional dogs for exceptional people."

CCI ensures the success and longevity of each human-canine partnership by selectively matching each participant to the dog that best fits his or her unique needs and circumstances. The result for those who have participated is a miracle ‹ a life of increased independence and filled with loving companionship.

Kay Roberts was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis almost three years ago. Her dog Fuller, who has been her faithful companion since early November 2003, helps her in many ways. "He helps me walk by wearing a special harness that I can touch with my hand as we walk together. He also retrieves things from the floor ‹ this helps me avoid bending and saves my energy." Ms. Roberts conveys what many feel who have a canine companion. "Best of all, Fuller makes me smile."

But dogs will be dogs and even Fuller is not without his own concerns she related. Without her knowing it, Fuller recently consumed one too many indigestable cicada shells and had to be treated at the vet because he was "literally clogged up."

CCI puppies are born in the homes of volunteer Breeder Caretakers, who provide permanent homes to CCI's breeder dogs. Breeder Caretakers nurture the pups until they reach about 8 weeks of age and are placed with volunteer Puppy Raisers. It is with the Puppy Raisers that the education begins.

Puppy Raisers give the pups loving homes until they reach 13 to 18 months of age. Each volunteer pays for all the expenses required to raise the puppy, an amount that averages $1,200. During this time, the puppies learn basic obedience and receive plenty of socialization, playtime and love. As healthy, happy, confident young dogs they are ready for advanced training at CCI.

For many of the volunteers who raise the pups, it is an altruistic labor of love that is both heart-breaking and heart-warming. Graduation day arrives all too soon when a pup, that one has grown emotionally attached to, must leave and join another family. One long-time puppy raiser comments, "It's hard to let the puppy go, but then you think about how it will help someone who truly needs it. Raising a puppy was an opportunity for the whole family. It helped to build the self-esteem of our children and taught them about helping others. There's nothing else I could do and feel so good about."

CCI provides four types of assistance dogs: Service dogs assist adults with physical disabilities by performing practical daily tasks such as turning light switches on and off, opening and closing doors, pulling manual wheelchairs, and retrieving dropped items.

Skilled companion dogs assist children with disabilities and adults with severe disabilities under the supervision of a facilitator ‹ a parent, spouse, or caregiver who handles and cares for the dog. In addition to providing assistance with physical tasks, skilled companion dogs are equally valued for their ability to boost confidence and alleviate feelings of isolation.

Hearing dogs help people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing by alerting them to key sounds such as a knock at the door, a smoke alarm, or someone addressing them by name.

Facility dogs work alongside healthcare and education professionals in settings such as rehabilitation centers, hospitals, and special education classrooms. Their calm temperament and unconditional love make them ideal for interacting with and motivating people of all ages.

CCI has needs for many volunteers to assist with newsletter articles, mailings, outreach programs, community days, and festivals. As Kathy Gale, a volunteer in the N.J. Chapter commented, "We've met a lot of different people and hopefully we've made a difference in their lives."

To learn more about about CCI's programs and volunteer opportunities contact 1-800-572-BARK (572-2275) or visit their website at www.canine companions.org.

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