Monday, 15 July 2024

A life-changing gift: Canine companions offer independence, confidence

John Eells of Lucerne, Calif., and his dog, Patch, work on commands. Eells is hard of hearing and Patch alerts him to important sounds. Photo by Tera DeVroede.




SONOMA AND LAKE COUNTIES – Using the bond between humans and dogs that stretches back millenia, Canine Companions for Independence offer companionship, independence and life-changing services for those who need it in the form of highly trained service dogs.

Canine Companions for Independence was founded in 1975 and is based in Santa Rosa. Since then, the organization has expanded to become the largest assistance dog organization in the world.

They train four types of dogs: service dogs, facility dogs, hearing aid dogs and skilled companions. These dogs serve groups of people in education, health care and courtroom settings, and are provided free of charge.

Service dogs assist people with physical disabilities and challenges, while facility dogs serve many people in a business setting and are also therapeutic visitors.

Hearing aid dogs are trained to alert people to certain sounds and other things the hearing impaired may need. Skilled companions aid those who have a developmental disorder – mostly children.

Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and crosses of the two are the breeds of dogs that Canine Companions for Independence trains.

“Temperament, intelligence, a willingness to serve and health factors make these dogs the ideal dogs for our program,” said Bonnie McMellon, Northwest Development Associate for CCI.

All of the puppy raising, training and placing is funded by volunteer from the communities that CCI serves. The United States is broken up into five regions with training facilities throughout.

Northern California is in the northwest region along with Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and northern Nevada. Then there’s north central, northeast, southeast and southwest regions making up the rest of America.

“Two hundred and 76 puppies are being raised right now in the northwest region,” McMellon said. “There are 1,106 puppies being raised right now, nationwide. There are currently five active graduates with their dogs and four puppies being raised by volunteer puppy raisers living in Lake County.”

Puppies are transferred from the breeders to the puppy raisers at eight weeks of age, where they learn basic obedience skills, said McMellon. When the dog is approximately one and a half years old, it is turned into a regional training center for advanced training by professional training staff, she said.

Volunteers play a crucial role in sustaining the extensive service CCI offers to the public in need of such companionship. The organization is supported through corporate and private donations.

Hundreds aof corporations and caring folks are thanked for their contributions; for the complete list, visit

Canine Companions is celebrating its 35th anniversary – and 245 dog years – in style with the 2010 Bone Appétit – A Celebration of Great Pairings on Sept. 12. The event is a major fundraiser for the Santa Rosa Northwest Regional Center. This year is set to be straight from the 1970s, with period attire expected.

They hope to raise $200,000 in donations at their event, which will take place at the 12-acre Jean and Charles Schulz Campus on Dutton Avenue in Santa Rosa. Six hundred guests will be treated to cuisine from over 40 restaurants and wineries, live music and a silent auction. But, one of the main attractions is sure to be the puppies-in-training, who will be there for the attention.

“Nationwide, we have 98 volunteer breeder-caretakers and 950 volunteer puppy raisers who donate their time and money towards raising puppies for our organization. We would not be able to place as many dogs as we currently do, without their dedication and financial assistance,” said McMellon.

Live dog-training demonstrations will showcase the dogs’ abilities and professional training that will enhance the lives of those who need their help.

Once someone in the northwest regions is matched with a dog, they attend the training center in Santa Rosa for a two-week-long intensive training for both the person and the dog. Most people stay at the center’s hotel.

During that two week period, the person gets to know their service dog and learns how to use the 40 commands the dogs have been learning since their training began as puppies.

But, the services do not end once the dogs are placed with their graduates. They also have followup services to ensure the process goes smoothly.

Emma and Kenneth

Emma Kucer is 9 years old. She lives with her mother Tracey, her siblings and her dog Kenneth, in Hidden Valley Lake. Kenneth is Emma’s skilled companion and assists her with difficulties relating to her disability, Down Syndrome.

Tracey Kucer was open to anything that would help her daughter be more independent. So, after a friend told her to look into getting s service dog, she contacted CCI. She and Emma were matched with Kenneth in the spring of 2008 – nine months after they applied.

“The length of time it takes to get a dog depends on the type of service dog requested,” said McMellon. “The average wait time to receive a dog once someone is placed on our candidates lists it six months to two years.”

Once she got word that they were to receive a service dog, the mom and daughter packed their bags and headed to Santa Rosa.

“The stay was so nice. They provide meals and it is all free,” Kucer said. “It is also a great experience being with a group of people who have children with other unique needs and stories to share.”

Kenneth also acts as a social bridge between Emma and other children who can sometimes be frightened of her disability, said Kucer. Whenever Kenneth is with Emma, other kids come running.

Emma's speech is not always intelligible, so Kucer has been acting as her translator on top of mother. But, she reports that Kenneth understands any and every command Emma gives him.

“Their bond is so strong,” said Kucer. “Kenneth is the best dog we could have ever hoped for – he came fully trained.”

Kucer plans to look into applying for other dogs for Emma in the future, but also hopes that time doesn’t come too soon.




Patch pays close attention to his owner, John Eells of Lucerne, Calif. The assistance dog recently decided that it was important to alert Eells to a new sound

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