Paws for a cause: Behind the scenes of Canine Companions for Independence
You know that feeling you get when you walk through the door after a long day and are greeted with pure joy by a beloved dog? The kind of feeling that tells you, without question, that you are home? As I walk towards the main entrance of the Canine Companions for Independence Training Center in Santa Rosa, California, I am struck by this sentiment. Although—the dogs here are not waiting for me on the other side of the administration building door—they are busy at work, learning how to enrich the lives of their future owners.
In the absence of dogs upon entry, I’m greeted by something nearly as cheerful: Statues of Peanuts characters. Particularly, Snoopy and Woodstock.
Why the Peanuts characters?
Michelle Williams, the public relations and marketing coordinator of the Canine Companions for Independence, gives me the full scoop while taking me on a tour of the freshly manicured, sprawling green campus tucked away in Santa Rosa. And though I hear the chirps of birds in the surrounding trees, I am a little disappointed not to hear barking. In fact, the only indication that this campus is full of well-trained pups is the agility course on the lawn and foot-long tug-ropes attached to entrance doors.
Canine Companions for Independence was founded in 1975 in Santa Rosa, California. The Jean and Charles Schulz campus (yes, that Charles Schulz—who sneakily carved a permanent Snoopy into the cement during the ribbon-cutting ceremony in 1996) has been officially open since 1996. The campus serves as the National Headquarters and Northwest Training Center, where they train four different types of companion dogs.
After sharing with Michelle the story I’d heard about a Canine Companion dramatically improving the life of a child with disabilities within the Adventist Health community, Michelle is delighted to explain the different types of methods they use for training their dogs. “We train service dogs—which are the ones people are most used to seeing,” she says, adding that these dogs assist adults with cognitive or physical disabilities. “They turn off lights, open and close doors, some even learn to pull someone in a manual wheelchair.”
They also train “skilled companions,” which Michelle says was most likely the type of dog I mentioned before—where the dog, his companion (usually a child with a disability), and a parent or a guardian are all part of a “team” if the parent is the main caretaker/leash-holder of the pup. “One of our favorite examples involves a skilled companion that helped his owner—who was a child that had a hard time with transitions—getting out of bed in the morning. The dog would turn on the light and take off his sheets! How could you not be in a great mood if that’s how you woke up every morning?” she says.
Facility dogs are trained to work in healthcare facilities, criminal justice facilities, or other types of therapeutic or educational setting. Michelle says that these dogs—who live with a facilitator/employee of that field—can be placed anywhere from a children’s hospital to a VA hospital, bringing comfort and assistance in a wide range of settings.
The fourth type of dog they train at Canine Companions for Independence are hearing dogs. These dogs are placed with deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals and alert them to sounds in their environment. They nudge their owner’s leg or arm to signal sounds such as doorbells, alarms, someone calling a name, and even smoke alarms. “The dog will take them to the sound,” Michelle says, adding that she never thought about how much independence these dogs truly created for their owners until she started working at this facility and hearing client stories.
“One particular story really got to me,” says Michelle. “A lady was able to babysit her grandchildren because, with the dog, she was able to hear the babies cry or if an alarm went off. We love hearing these stories.”
Canine Companions is a non-profit organization and relies on private funding and volunteers of varying degrees—from breeder caretakers (who are responsible for bringing in the carefully selected male and female “breeder” dogs and assisting with the birthing of puppies), to puppy raisers (who teach the puppies basic commands before they enter the professional training program on the Canine Companions campus) and various other local volunteers.
Breeding is selective, and only exceptional dogs make it through the Canine Companions training program to the “graduation.” But don’t worry—there’s a long line of people waiting to adopt the pups that don’t quite meet the high expectations of the program.
Michelle walks me through the various buildings on campus and I feel as though I’m touring a school campus—only the students here are small and furry—and secretly I hope their naptimes and snack breaks are just as bountiful as I remember them back in the day. Michelle says they intake about 800 puppies (or “students”) in a year, and currently have over 2,000 active graduate teams nationwide. After walking through the onsite veterinary clinic, we pass through the grooming room, where I meet several pups in line to get bathed and brushed by a volunteer before they leave campus.
After walking through the meticulous puppy kitchen area (where there is a board carefully color-coded with each dog’s dietary needs) I get to meet one of the pups in training. For the sake of anonymity, I will call him Frankie. Frankie is a very good boy.
I ask Michelle how long it takes dogs like Frankie to “graduate” and be placed with their new owners. She says they’re usually ready to go around age 2, and they have a working life of about eight to 10 years depending on the type of service they’re providing. Afterwards they go into “retirement,” where the family may keep the dog, or he may go live with a close family member (families will be matched with new “working” pups if needed). Michelle says there are also plenty of community members eager to adopt the older dogs if the families want to release them.
Every part of the Schulz campus is meticulously designed for different training scenarios—right down to mock “apartments” for training the hearing dogs. This is where I meet Ken, who has been training dogs for Canine Companions for 23 years. He explains his process of creating realistic situations in the apartment so the dogs can learn how to respond and alert him to sounds like alarms, voices and other key sounds.
Across the hall I see a few of the dormitories for visiting individuals and families to stay in while being “matched” with their companion dog. I ask Michelle what the matching process is like. How do they know which dogs would be the best fit for each person?
“We always have more dogs ready to be matched than the number of people arriving,” she says, adding that the lengthy, in-depth application process gives them good ideas about which dogs would match each unique person. When the big day comes to meeting their matches, the recipients and their new companion spend a couple of weeks together on campus going to classes and bonding. And then Michelle tells me something that shocks me: Everything about their service is free. Families do not pay for the dog or their stay on campus—which is why fundraising is so important.
The community that Canine Companions creates is phenomenal, and Michelle says that there’s many ways the graduated dogs and their families stay connecting to each other. For example, they communicate through social media and sometimes throw group pool parties. On a larger scale, Canine Companions host many community events around the country, like DogFest Walk n’ Roll, where anyone can register to walk/run the course and fundraise for the cause. They also host many events on campus that all are welcome to attend, like graduations and Sit, Stay, Sparkle—a fundraising event full of food, live and silent auctions and guest speakers.
Walking around the campus with its manicured lawns, cheery Peanuts statues, smiling volunteers and employees (who are, perhaps, the luckiest employees of any company because they get to bring their own pups to work every day)—I get a real sense of hope and empathy. When we think of dogs, we think of loyal companions—but I can feel it here with the people, too; everyone here is doing something they love, for the greater good of helping a community in need. They are motivated by love and compassion, which are two traits we should hope to find in all of our companions.
Want to learn more about Canine Companions for Independence, volunteer or go on a tour of your own? Check out its website here.