Wellington II, an adorable puppy who loves treats and giving kisses, might only be just over three months old, but he’s already on his way to making a difference in the lives of those with disabilities.
Wellington is a dog in the Canine Companions for Independence, Inc., program, the first and largest assistance dog organization in the United States helping people with physical disabilities.
Puppy trainers spend up to 18 months caring for the dogs until they are ready to go into a more formal training program and eventually, to their new homes, helping children and adults with physical challenges.
But the costs can be daunting: To that end, Mattituck puppy trainer Dee Dellaquila joined Canine Companions representatives at the North Fork Animal Hospital in Southold today to kick off a new initiative, puppy raiser care packages, provided by Henry Schein Animal Health, a leading companion animal health product and services provider.
The packages contain many critical items to help keep the puppies healthy, including heartworm and flea and tick medicines.
Dellaquila said it’s a “blessing” to serve as a puppy raiser and nurture the dogs before they go out into the world to help others. Having to let go of the pup isn’t always easy, but Dellaquila said she remains focused on the end goal. “You have to keep your eye on the gift you’re going to give someone.”
Her eyes filled with tears, Dellaquila said watching a child get their dog, and the looks on the parents’ faces, makes every step of the journey priceless. “Some people ask how I can do this. I say, ‘How can I not?'” she said.
Dr. Robert Pisciotta of the North Fork Animal Hospital said the kits will help the puppy raisers and vets, too. “It’s a big commitment to raise the puppies,” he said, adding that the kits will help meet expenses.
Director Debra Dougherty, executive director of Canine Companions, agreed. “This is such a wonderful project,” she said. “It’s a gift to puppy raisers.” Hopefully, she said, the kits will help ease financial concerns of prospective new puppy raisers and encourage others to sign on.
Susan Vassallo, vice president of corporate communications for Ohio-based Henry Schein Animal Health, said the “wonderful” project is part of the company’s social responsibility program and is meant to help ease the financial burden to the volunteer puppy raisers.
According to its website, Canine Companions for Independence, founded in 1975, is a non-profit organization that “enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships.” The matches made between dogs and people, the site states, results in lives of “increased independence and loving companionship.”
Locally, the stories told by those who have either volunteered to train a dog or whose lives have blossomed due to the love of a Canine Companionm are heartfelt and life-altering. Canine Companions provides the dogs free of charge.
Eileen Benthal, of Jamesport, said the lives of she and her family have been blessed by the “miracle” of their assistance dogs.
She applauded the new puppy trainer kits. “It’s a great program and outreach to puppy raisers,” she said. “Puppy raising takes a commitment of heart, time, and resources. These products from Henry Schein will add support to that comittment. We are very blessed on the North Fork to have exceptional veterinary care at NFAH, and the amazing discounts they offer to CCI service dogs and puppies in training. But to have the added support of Henry Schein Cares will make it easier for more people to say ‘yes.'”
A service dog, Taffy, was placed with Benthal’s daughter, Johanna, over 10 years ago, when Taffy was two and Johanna, eight. Johanna, now 19, was diagnosed at three months old with a rare genetic neurological disease that causes tumors to grow in her brain.
“Over these years, Taffy helped to increase Johanna’s independence by retrieving items for her, providing some motor stability, and helping to open doors when necessary. Taffy was an official part of Johanna’s care plan by helping to mitigate the stress and pain of chronic headaches, bleeding in the brain and frequent brain surgeries,” Benthal said.
Taffy has passed away, but the family now has a new CCI dog, Moats.
Dellaquila, owner of Dellaquila Beauty in Jamesport, said Wellington is her ninth Canine Companions puppy; the dogs are Labradors or Lab/golden retrievers crosses.
Dellaquila and her husband Frank began working with the Canine Companions program when their children were young, eight and ten years old; today they are 26 and 24.
“We loved that our kids would be able to relate to children with disabilities. It’ was a nice thing to teach them, to do something you love and help someone else,” she said.
Currently, the Mattituck couple has five dogs, four of their own and one Canine Companions dog; their last Canine Companion Pixie has now graduated training and is living in her new home.
The Canine Companions program, she said, “is really wonderful. They’re all very giving people. It’s a gift to be able to give someone the joy of a dog, independence, love and companionship.I feel blessed to be able to do this.”
The dogs, she said, arrive by plane from Santa Rosa, CA, where Canine Companions of Independence has its own breeding program. “We get them at eight weeks old,” Dellaquila said, adding that the dogs generally stay in the homes until they are a year and a half old; families go to free training classes in Medford.
The Canine Companions program creates lifelong bonds and friendships among those who’ve embarked on similar journeys, raising the puppies or welcoming them into their homes, Dellaquila said; volunteers help one another and share experiences, support, and advice.
“This is the greatest organization, with the greatest, most wonderful people,” Dellaquila said. “It enhances my life. I feel so good giving someone the love of an animal. I’m a huge animal lover and to be able to do that for someone else makes me very happy.”