Canine Companions for Independence: Providing Assistance Dogs For Those In Need Part II

Posted on: Thursday, July 18th, 2013

Amy Tripp

The following is the second part to the earlier article I shared with you from: The Friendship Circle Blog – Special Needs Resource for Parents and Educators.


Have you ever wondered if a service dog could enhance your quality of life?  Or what it would be like to attend a school where one of the therapists is a dog?

This is part two (read part one below) of an interview with Jennifer Pottheiser, a volunteer with Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), to learn more about the different roles of service dogs, skilled companion dogs and facility dogs.  Here’s what she had to say:

Karen Wang: Whom do the CCI service dogs assist?
Jennifer Pottheiser: Canine Companions for Independence Service Dogs are partnered with adults with physical disabilities other than blindness.  A Service Dogs assists with daily tasks and increase independence by reducing reliance on other people.

A Service Dog can pull their partner in a manual wheelchair, push buttons for elevators or automatic doors, and even assist with business transactions by transferring money, receipts, and packages.  A CCI Service Dog not only assists with physical tasks, but also provides social support. During a two-week training session, participants learn how to handle an assistance dog effectively, and to maximize use of the 60 commands. Disabilities served include, but are not limited to, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, arthritis and cerebral palsy.

There is also a very active Wounded Veterans Initiative that places CCI dogs with disabled veterans returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the young men that recently received a service dog is an active duty Marine who is a quadruple amputee after stepping on an IED outside Fallujah.

KW: Whom do the skilled companion dogs assist?
JP: CCI Skilled Companion Dogs are trained to work with an adult or child with a disability under the guidance of a facilitator. A facilitator is typically a parent, spouse or caregiver who handles and cares for the assistance dog, encourages a strong bond between the recipient and the Skilled Companion Dog, and is responsible for the customized training needs of the dog.

Disabilities served include but are not limited to, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, autism and Down syndrome.  A CCI Skilled Companion is bred to be calm, reliable and affectionate, and reduces the reliance on other people to complete simple daily tasks.  A CCI Skilled Companion can also serve as a social bridge to people who are not used to relating to a person with disabilities. Not only does this kind of assistance make their physical lives easier, it boosts confidence and feelings of self-sufficiency.

KW: Whom do the facility dogs assist?
JP: Facility dogs are expertly trained dogs who partner with a professional working in a health care, visitation or educational setting. The professional that applies for and trains with the dog is responsible for handling and caring for the facility dog in their full time place of employment.

One of the most valued qualities of the Facility Dog is the unconditional love and attention it gives to the clients and patients with whom it interacts. In an educational setting, a Facility Dog helps engage students in schools and special education classes. In a health care environment, activities such as grooming, feeding and playing fetch with a Facility Dog can aid patients in occupational and physical therapy and psychiatric programs.

KW: What is a typical day like for a facility dog?
JP: Pat Lenzo is a special education teacher in the Transition Employment Skills Class at the ECLC school in Chatham, NJ. She has had Facility Dog Gino for 2 years, and every day is a new adventure with her 20-something year old clients.

From the first arrival of fellow teachers, Gino is putting smiles on peoples faces, as he is always interested in a game of fetch. At lunchtime, Gino is a great motivator for normally sedentary students as he searches out a pal with whom to play catch or Frisbee. One day per week, Pat will bring Gino into classrooms and use him to teach lessons on citizenship, safety awareness, following directions and daily living skills. These topics are much more easily discussed when using a furry blonde dog to talk about how these ideas can be applied to both human and canine.

Gino is also a great ambassador in the community as he attends field trips with the ECLC clients. A well mannered dog is a great way to bridge the gap between the young adults and members of the community who might otherwise not engage with this population. Gino is also used as a reward with members of the ECLC community and there is nothing better than for students to spend one on one time with him if they have been exceptionally involved during the week.

Cheryl Porter Avino, a CCI volunteer puppy raiser and partner with Facility Dog Patrina, works as a social worker at the ECLC school in Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ. She explains a typical day in the life of her facility dog: “Prior to leaving for school, Patrina is a regular dog. Up, out and breakfast then a quick nap before we leave for school.  As soon as Patrina hears me open the door where I keep her leash and her vest, she’s up and ready to leave for school.

Once there, she greets the staff already there. As students arrive she’s in an office, she’s waiting to really start her day. Sometimes she greets students as they get off buses and once kids are in their classrooms, we make our rounds to check-in on students. Normally this time of the day is pretty quiet for her.

As the day progresses, she may be visited by students who have worked with her. Sometimes she is asked to come to a classroom where is student is in need of some sensory input. They may need calming by petting her or a distraction, so we’ll take a walk with her. Depending on the day we could be working in physical therapy with students. Perhaps she will pull a student on a scooter to help them build upper body strength and gain balance all the while the student thinks they are just playing with Patrina.

In nice weather we often are asked to go outside to the field for some recess time. Because of our students disabilities they are often not motivated to move, but being outside with Patrina is different. They want to run with her or throw the ball to her. Sometimes we are asked to take trips into the community with students. We often visit the post office, supermarket, library, or drug store for learning experiences outside the classroom. Bringing a facility/service dog with public access offers the students a chance to interact with people that they normally may not have. Because a person with a disability is approached ten times more often if they have a service dog, strangers will often inquire about Patrina which offers our students an opportunity to practice their interaction, speech and social communication with people.

Many of our students work for “Patrina Cards,” which are cards with Patrina’s picture on it. As they complete a task they earn a card, once they have earned the number of cards required they get to spend some special time with Patrina. They can walk her or come to my office to visit her and have some time with her on their own. Patrina also is a part of our lunch time social groups. She is often asked to come to counseling groups. She can help alleviate anxiety and help students relax as they talk about things that they may be worrying about. You can often see Patrina lying in the hallway assessing the activity ready to help at a moments notice!

I’m just the person at the other end of the leash. Patrina has taught me unconditional acceptance and given me the opportunities to witness, daily, the power that animals have in interacting with people. Having a service dog has changed my life, and I don’t have a physical disability. I will forever be committed to CCI.  Our ECLC Ho-Ho-Kus school has raised two puppies for CCI, in an effort to give back for placing Patrina with us.”

KW: What happens to the dogs that are unable to complete training successfully?
JP: Canine Companions for Independence has strict guidelines and requirements for their working dogs. As a result, only 40% of the puppies that enter the advance program ultimately pass. Dogs that don’t successfully complete the program are usually returned to their puppy raiser to live out their life as a highly skilled house pet. Many of the puppy raisers then choose to have their dogs certified for pet therapy.

KW: Could you share a success story for one of your dogs and handlers?
 Cheryl Porter-Avino is a social worker at ECLC, and has been partnered with facility dog Patrina for four years. Her success story encompasses her entire school. “Every day I see the changes that working with a dog brings to our students” she says. “It has opened my eyes to the unbelievable impact a dog can have on a person’s life. Some great strides noticeable to everyone and small changes that mostly I notice because I’m working so closely with the students.” As she reflects on a recent incident, she says, “One boy in particular was terrified of Patrina when he first came to our school. He would run out the back door of the classroom if I walked in with her. Slowly he realized that I would not approach him with her if he did not want me to. Over several months he got more and more used to her until one day he reached out to touch her. He then began asking to come down to my office to visit her. Several months ago, his parents – seeing the change in him – applied to CCI for a dog!  He is currently in the application process. Without the interaction of our facility dog I don’t believe he would have gotten to this point of comfort.”


mm By: Amy Tripp
Amy Tripp