By Jaimie Julia Winters
Montclair just became home for puppy Jonquil III, a lab/golden retriever cross who will one-day know over 40 commands including pushing a wheelchair and picking up a dropped item as small as a dime for his furever companion.
Montclairite Karen Phillips took in eight-week-old Jonquil last month and will raise him for a year and a half for Canine Companions for Independence. If all goes well, Phillips will have to say goodbye to Jonquil in August 2019, when he will become an assistance-dog-in-training and enter an intensive training program in New York. The end goal? To place Jonquil with a child, adult or veteran, or the wheelchair-bound. The not-for-profit’s most recent placement was with a Marine who is a quadruple amputee after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan.
Trainers known as “puppy raisers” take the dogs into their home at eight weeks of age, raising them until they are nearly two years old, getting them through the puppy phase while teaching them attention skills.
Phillips’ job for now is to socialize Jonquil while wearing her special yellow service cape and to get her to listen to a handful of commands. She is the first person from Montclair to raise a puppy for Canine Companions.
“The socialization is perhaps the most important, because the dogs need to be exposed to any and all types of surroundings. With the special yellow capes they wear, these dogs are permitted to go to many public areas that family pets aren’t allowed,” said John Bentzinger, public relations and marketing coordinator for Canine Companions. “The puppy raisers are really the backbones of our organization, and we couldn’t serve without them.”
Phillips was dog sitting for her brother’s two labs when she met a Canine Companions puppy raiser on a walk. Striking up a conversation, she listened to the the man’s story and immediately felt drawn to help.
“I had lost my dog who was the love of my life,” Phillips said. “If I could give that and more to someone else, I was in.”
The program breeds dogs in Santa Rosa, California, including Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers and a cross between the two. Those breeds are chosen because they are highly intelligent, strong, like to please and therefore highly trainable. Phillips said Jonquil is that and more. “She is smart, spirited, social, attentive and willful,” said Phillips.
Phillips’ job over the next year and half will be to train Jonquil to become totally attentive and not willful. As a service dog he will have to learn to be totally immersed with the needs of another person and also to learn danger cues. Only 40 percent of the dogs make it to placement.
It takes about $50,000 to breed and train a Canine Companions dog, not including the cost of Jonquil’s food and vet bills, which are covered by Phillips.
When the dog is about between one-and-a-half to two years of age, he or she is sent to instructors who train the dog to learn to know about 40 commands over a six-month period. An evaluation is made and based on the dogs different strengths, a person with disabilities is matched with an assistance dog.
“Our standards are exceedingly high,” Bentzinger said. “The ones that graduate really are the cream of the crop.”
Those seeking a companion dog fill out an application and wait for about a year before being matched. There is no charge for the dog, its training and on-going follow-up services, which includes annual re-trainings.
‘Now i am a guy with a dog’
Nine-year-old Grant Weiss of Maplewood was matched with Natchez two years ago. The family was introduced to the idea of a service dog during a shopping trip to a recreational equipment store and Grant met a man in a wheelchair with his service dog.
“The man said “I used to be a guy in a wheelchair, now I am a guy with a dog,’” Grant’s father Danny recalled.
As children under the age of 16 can not be the sole facilitator of a service dog, Grant’s parents took up the role. But Natchez goes everywhere Grant does, with the exception of school. Grant, who has cerebral palsy, depends on Natchez to open drawers and pick up things such as the TV remote a pencil or a LEGO piece.
Grant and his parents attended a two-week team training session where trainers, dog and new owner work together. After two weeks, puppy raisers are invited to a graduation ceremony where the leash is ceremoniously handed over from the puppy raiser to the new owner. Natchez and Grant have been inseparable since. The family has kept in touch with Natchez’s puppy raisers, even spending the night with them last year.
How does Phillips feel about having to pass Jonquil’s leash?
Although Jonquil is already part of Phillips’ family and extended family and they have come to expect the daily blogs about the puppy’s progress, exploits and cuteness, Phillips says the ultimate reward will be that Jonquil graduates with flying colors and is handed over to her furever home with someone who will need not only her services, but companionship as well.
“I would not have done this if I couldn’t handle it. The end result is to see her paired with the right person,” Phillips said
A long-time puppy raiser explained to Bentzinger it’s similar to raising children. “When they get old enough, they go off to college. When they’re done with college, you don’t want them to move back home, do you? You want them to go out, find a job, be happy and make a difference! That’s exactly what these dogs are doing.”
Canine Companions for Independence is the largest non-profit provider of trained assistance dogs with six regional training centers across the country. Established in 1975, the company provides highly-trained assistance dogs to children, adults and veterans with disabilities. Last year, it placed 403 assistant dogs.
Some of the dogs are also placed in hospitals and rehabilitation centers as motivational tools. Several dogs have been placed in the criminal justice system, giving comfort to children who are victims of sexual abuse and other violent crimes as they give testimony against their tormentors. The Veterans Initiative places dogs with disabled veterans returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The dogs that do not make it through the final training are offered for adoption by their puppy trainers.
For Phillips that’s a welcomed resolution if Jonquil doesn’t make the cut, but not what they are shooting for.
“I plan to go to that graduation and hand over that leash to Jonquil’s companion,” she said.
For more information about becoming a puppy raiser, visit cci.org or call 1-800-572-BARK.