The life of a CCI dog starts with the breeding program. We have Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and crosses between these two breeds. CCI puppies are born in the home of a volunteer breeder/caretaker where they are cuddled and nurtured through the first weeks of life. At eight weeks the tiny little bundles of assistance dog potential are taken to CCI's National headquarters in Santa Rosa, California where they receive a health check and a painless ear tattoo that will always identify them as CCI dogs! The pups are then ready for their volunteer puppy raisers.
What an exciting day it is when puppies arrive at the Regional Center to meet their new families. Pups leave Santa Rosa early in the morning under the care of a volunteer who drives them to the San Francisco airport for their first flight experience. Another volunteer is waiting at the San Diego airport to bring the puppies to our campus. They arrive happy, hungry and usually in need of a comforting bath. They have time for frolicking in the puppy play yard too. But before long, the excited arms of their own puppy raisers will embrace them and they will deliver the official licks of welcome. The adventure continues.
Volunteer puppy raisers have their little charges for 14-16 months. During this time, they follow CCI manuals to provide basic obedience training and socialization of the young dogs. As a puppy raiser myself, I can attest to the multi-dimensional wonderment of the experience. I have learned so much about dogs and training protocols. I have also gained insight from incredibly selfless volunteers who have raised multiple pups for CCI and devoted literally thousands of hours of volunteer service in the process. Puppy raising also comes with an automatic community outreach opportunity. Whenever CCI pups are out in public sporting their snappy yellow vests, they draw a crowd. It is a built-in chance to share information about CCI's program to provide assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities.
The pups come back to the Southwest Center at 16-18 months of age to enter six months of Advanced Training with professional CCI Instructors. Some people equate Advanced Training with Canine College. It is an intense training regimen that identifies the dogs that are suited for life as an assistance dog. As with regular college, not all who attend will graduate, but those that do are clearly the best of the best. Dogs learn up to 40 specific commands, including turning lights on and off, opening doors, pulling wheelchairs, picking up dropped objects and assisting with transactions. They go on regular field trips to test their public manners, and have ample time for playing with their kennel mates. Playtime includes time to romp on plastic slides and splash in wading pools - great fun is had by all. They are groomed daily and kept at the peak of good health.
Team Training is the next step. Dogs that have made it and proved they have the temperament, physical attributes, and skills to be an assistance dog will go through an intensive two-week class to be matched with their human partner. Team Training is tough from both sides of the equation. Candidates for a CCI dog have spent many months on a waiting list and are as nervous as they are excited about the prospect of meeting the dog that may be their companion for the next 10 years. The dogs, who have established a routine with their trainers, are now introduced to new people that don't have the expert handling skills of the trainers. It is a learning process laced with high emotion. As the candidates are learning to be dog handlers, the instructors are watching every nuance of interaction to determine the best human/canine matches.
Now they are a team! When matches are made, the bonding process between dog and person kicks into high gear. Seeing a child wrap his arms around his dog in bear hug fashion, seeing a dog place his head softly on the lap of a paralyzed adult and gaze into their eyes - those are the indelible pictures of CCI miracles!