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Graduation Day: Celebrating the Newest Canine Companions

Puppy raisers hand off new Canine Companions
Puppy raisers hand off new Canine Companions

It's graduation day at the Northeast region of Canine Companions for Independence. We're at a Marriott hotel on Long Island to bear witness to the formal handoff of ten trained assistance dogs from their volunteer trainers, who had the dogs for 14 months as puppies, to the individuals the dogs will serve.

After the puppy raiser returns the dog to CCI, the dog attends a six- to nine-month training course with professional instructors at the CCI Miller Campus in Medford, NY. They learn over 40 commands and practice working in different environments. The dogs are carefully screened to see if they truly have what it takes to become a CCI assistance dog. CCI dogs are bred to be so mellow that most won't lift their head when a squirrel crosses their path. Sometimes, though, very old instincts to give chase just won't go away. Two in three are released because they have behaviors that can't be trained away – fears, excitability, aggression.

This is a big day for the folks getting the dogs; for some the wait has been long. The recipients, who don't have to pay anything for the dogs, have been well vetted by the CCI process, including extensive interviews and even home inspections. A person won't qualify unless it is clear that this canine experience will enhance independence and improve quality of life. As they like to say here, "The most advanced technology for transforming the lives of people with disabilities has a cold nose and a warm heart."

Before their graduation ceremony

A few hours before the graduation ceremony begins, the recipients completed a two-week intensive training period of their own, living in dorms at the Miller campus to learn the finer details of dog handling and canine behavior. Here they were matched with a dog that suits their needs and temperament, and where they experienced full immersion in the ways of unconditional companionship.

It can be an emotional day for the volunteer puppy trainers, too. They took care of the dogs when they were little fur balls. Today, the trainers officially say good-bye and hand over the leash.

This CCI region is one of five in the US. It places assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities in 13 states from Virginia to Maine. Since opening 20 years ago, The NE region has placed over 500 assistance dogs; more than half are still active. The region has more than 270 volunteers, 160 puppy raisers and 8 active chapters.

Cold nose, warm heart
Cold nose, warm heart
A new class of puppies
Here at the hotel, there are many more dogs than the 10 in the graduating class. The event (there are two or three graduations a year) has become a sort of tribal gathering for the CCI community. A new class of puppies – adorable little pale golden retrievers or Labradors – is on hand to begin their training.

Rikki Robinson, who presented Lucah II to Kathy, has trained three puppies for CCI. "The dogs are our teachers," she says. "People say, ‘oh but I could never be a puppy trainer, I could never let the dog go back.' But it's not about giving anything up or letting go, it's about gaining and giving."

Christina Montalbano and her mother Marianne, from Middletown, NJ have trained four CCI dogs. They adopted the second one themselves — it didn't make the cut and was released.

To be sure, the Montalbano's most recent, Wexler, made the grade. He knows his 40 commands, including retrieving and delivering dropped items, even paper. He can tug and push, and he can pull a lightweight wheelchair and turn lights on and off. Wexler was placed with paraplegic John Thompson, a schoolteacher in Somerville, MA. John teaches grade school special ed and had used a service dog for the past 10 years. His dog died so he applied again and was matched up with Wexler. They bonded immediately, he says.

"A lot of the kids in my classes struggle with reading," says John. "The dog, he just lies in the middle of the floor, and the kids, they read to him. A dog won't judge them."

What is important
John is very impressed by the CCI training process. It's vigorous – for the dog and the owner. "A dog won't work for you unless it respects you," he says. "You have to show confidence. Body language is important. You learn to speak clearly and to use unemotional commands. You don't yell, you don't ask."

John says the human has to assume the pack leader role. "You need to keep a hint of fear. If the dog steps out of bounds, you have to be the alpha dog." That may seem harsh, John admits, but the bond between man and dog is solid. "When I give the command ‘release,' that means Wexler can do whatever he wants. What does he do? His head goes right to my lap. That's his idea of freedom." Do the Montalbanos miss Wexler? They say no, not a bit. "He is doing what he was meant to be doing," says Christina. "It's his job."

 A Taj Mahal for service dogs

Canine Companions for Independence
Canine Companions for Independence
The Northeast region of Canine Companions worked out of a converted barn at the SUNY Farmingdale Campus on Long Island for almost 20 years. In July of 2008, they moved into a new 11-acre, 39,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility. They call it the Miller Family Campus, in honor of a donor. The campus features a Canine Care Center with 35 kennels, exercise yards, a wellness clinic and grooming facility, along with separate kennels and play yards for puppies. The Hagedorn Team Training Residence Hall has 11 spacious, fully accessible dorm rooms for dog recipients and their families. The rooms all have flat screen TVs and roll in showers. Bogie's Bistro provides a community space with an accessible kitchen, dining room and lounge. There are five training rooms that are utilized for team training, advanced training, puppy classes, as well as community meetings.

Canine Companions for Independence Northeast received funding from the Reeve Foundation Quality of Life Grant program. Since 1999, the Foundation has provided almost 1,600 grants totaling nearly $13 million to organizations worldwide.

For information, please visit
Quality of Life Grants,
For more on CCI and service dogs, please see


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Continue Christopher Reeve's LegacyPhoto by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders