A Family who Trains Together

FamilyWhoTrainsRaising Exceptional Dogs for Exceptional People

By Ann M. Noser

Perhaps you’ve heard the slogan “A Dog is For Life, Not Just For Christmas.” Well, not in the Stern household. Since 1994, they have raised and trained 22 service dogs for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI).

The 8- to 10-week-old pups arrive at the beginning of a 15- to 18-month transformation from adorable puppy to responsible young adult well on their way to providing assistance to people with disabilities. The dogs allow their people-partners more independence and a better quality of life.

These Labrador, Golden Retriever or Lab-Golden crosses are privately bred at the California CCI facility selecting for appropriate temperament and size. Expectant mothers are whelped in caretaker homes so the puppies can be born in the best possible environment.

Training Dogs Teaches Children

The Stern family spends their days and nights potty training, impeccably leash training and teaching over 40 separate one-word commands.

Service dogs learn “up” to use their front two feet to turn on and
off light switches, press elevator buttons or receive money or purchases from a business counter. They learn “jump” to use all four feet to access an elevated surface to retrieve a wanted item for their owner. Training a service dog is a 24/7 job that only ends when they say good-bye to the dog that has become so much a part of their family.

How can the Stern family bear the heartbreak of “losing” one dog after another? It’s not easy, but the emotional rewards are worth it.

“Now that I’m a parent, the most rewarding part of raising service dogs is watching my kids welcome the responsibilities of training the puppies,” says Amy.

Training service dogs teaches her children how to practice self-sacrifice, do good for others, and to let go when it is the right thing to do. The CCI program has given her kids a deep appreciation for those with disabilities.

Sometimes goodbye isn’t forever. Most service dogs work an average of eight years before retiring to spend their golden years as a cherished pet. One of the Stern family’s most memorable service dogs, a black Golden-Lab named J.J., returned to their home after assisting a woman with brittle bone disease for eight years. He spent both his puppyhood and his last days with the Stern family after his retirement from the CCI program.

What inspires a person to dedicate so much time to the CCI program? Amy Stern reports it was all due to an adorable CCI/Hill’s Science Diet dog calendar she spotted at Collin’s Feed & Seed over a decade ago. She loved that calendar, read all about CCI, and spent a year nagging her parents before convincing them to allow her to bring home a service dog to train.

Service with a Purpose

Canine Companions for Independence is a national organization that trains service dogs for many purposes.

The CCI center in California works with the VA hospital to assist veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). CCI locations on both coasts raise service dogs for the hearing impaired.

The Midwest location, based in Ohio, trains facility and service dogs. Facility dogs work at rehabilitation centers, grief counseling facilities, and in courtrooms to calm stressed children who have to testify during trials. These dogs only have access to the specific buildings they work in. Alternatively, service dogs provide specific services to their owners who have physical or developmental disabilities, wear the familiar pack and have public access to all buildings.

The Stern family teaches a puppy commands and actions, gets it comfortable walking on slippery store floors, and used to the noise and confusion of public life.

When the puppy is returned to CCI, he undergoes further training for the next six months to retrieve and deliver dropped items, tug and push on command, turn lights on and off, and pull lightweight wheelchairs.

Service dogs usually graduate at around two years of age, but due to CCI’s high standards, less than 40 percent of the dogs in the program actually graduate. Reasons vary from wariness on slippery floors to difficulties turning on and off lights.

Before turn-in, Amy attempts to reserve a good home for each pup if he doesn’t graduate. These dogs are excellent family pets already housebroken, well socialized, and trained beyond the level of the average family pet.

Recipient Process

The process for a recipient to receive a service dog is also lengthy, strenuous and time-consuming because CCI needs to make the best matches to provide the best results.

The recipient first completes an online application request. Four to six weeks later, they receive and complete the application. Three weeks later, they conduct a telephone interview. Two weeks after that, their doctors and therapists submit the medical and professional forms. Three months later is the personal interview with CCI. Two to four weeks after the personal interview, a selection review lets them know if they’ve been accepted for the waitlist. The recipient then waits one to two years for an official invite for team training at the CCI facility, first working with three dogs at a time, with the intention of narrowing down the selection to one dog.

Due to the sacrifices of the puppy-raising families and the fundraising done by CCI, the service dogs are provided free of charge to the recipients. “That’s really important to me, and one of the many reasons why I chose to work with CCI,” says Amy.

Overcoming Obstacles

But not everything about service dogs is rosy. Because many people buy fake service-dog packs online to cheat their way into the public realm without proper training, Amy and her family have encountered decreasing acceptance of real service dogs. The general public can’t tell which ones are the real service dogs, so all are treated with less understanding.

In Rochester, Amy’s family has had two episodes of troubles with restaurants treating them rudely when they were training their puppies. This hurts both the trainers and the disabled.

But the Sterns won’t let these difficulties stand in their way of raising service dogs to help the disabled gain more independence and a better quality of life.

Dr. Ann Anderson works as a small-animal veterinarian at Quarry Hill Park Animal Hospital by day, and a writer (under her married name Ann M. Noser) by night.