Linda Port is the program and training director at Canine Partners of the Rockies. We met because of Happy Tails Books’ upcoming book, Partners With Paws, which highlights the importance of assistance dogs in the lives of those with disabilities and the joy people derive from volunteering with assistance dog training and placement organizations. My interview with Linda below really opened my eyes to how the development process works, and as I read through the stories I’ve received to be considered for our upcoming book, I’ve been blown away by how talented these dogs truly are. Please take a minute to consider the information below. Then ask yourself, “Would puppy raising be right for my family?” It sounds like an exciting and worthy adventure to me!
HTB: The terms “assistance dogs” and “service dogs” seem to be used interchangeably by many. Could you give us an overview of what assistance dogs and service dogs are?
LP: “Assistance dogs” is a broad term that includes guide dogs for people who are blind or visually impaired, hearing dogs for people who are deaf or hearing impaired and service dogs. Service dogs assist people with disabilities other than sight or hearing impairments. There are different types of service dogs. Canine Partners of the Rockies trains service dogs to assist people with mobility limitations. These dogs pick up and deliver dropped items, open doors and turn on and off lights among other things. Some other types of service dogs include seizure respond dogs, medical alert dogs such as diabetic dogs and dogs who alert individuals to the presence of allergens.
HTB: Tell us about your dog training program. From start to finish, how does it work?
LP: Every assistance dog program has its own systems and methods of training although there are similarities among programs. Of course, I am the most familiar with the Canine Partners of the Rockies program and can tell you about it in detail.
It takes two years to train a Canine Partners of the Rockies (CaPR) service dog. In most cases, the puppies are donated or sold to CaPR at a discount by generous breeders. The puppies usually enter the service dog in training program when they are 8 to 10 weeks old. Volunteer Puppy Raisers train our young puppies until they are 18 to 20 months old. During that time the puppy lives in the Puppy Raiser’s home. The Raiser teaches manners and basic commands and also introduces the puppy to a variety of social contexts. CaPR provides the Raiser with a manual and conducts weekly obedience classes. The Puppy Raiser is responsible for the cost of raising the puppy while in his/her care. Because CaPR is a nonprofit organization, most expenses of raising a puppy are tax deductible. When a Raiser needs time away from the puppy (vacation, illness or just a break), the puppy is cared for by a Volunteer Puppy Sitter. Puppy Sitters receive the same training as Puppy Raisers.
When the puppy leaves the Puppy Raiser’s home, it goes through medical checks (eyes, heart, hips and elbows) to make sure the dog has the necessary health and structure for service dog work. Assuming the dog clears the medical checks, it continues its education with an Advanced Trainer who is a professional handler. The Advanced Trainer polishes the basic skills and teaches specific service dog skills. The dog lives with the Advanced Trainer during this stage of training which lasts 6 months.
At any time during its training, a dog can be released from the program. The reasons for release fall into two main categories – temperament and medical issues. Released dogs are placed in other working dog jobs with reputable organizations or adopted by individuals who have been screened by CaPR.
Once the dog is fully trained, it is matched with a person with a disability whose application has been approved by CaPR. Making an application is a multi-step process. The applicant has to be accepted at each phase of the process. All applicants do not become service dog candidates.
The application process starts with an online pre-application followed by a telephone interview. Both of these are pre-screening steps to determine if a Canine Partners dog might be an appropriate intervention for the applicant. After the pre-screening the formal application process begins. The formal application consists of a several page application, a doctor’s statement and recommendation, letters of reference and a $50 application fee. Upon receiving all written materials, the application is reviewed. The next step is an in-person interview followed by a home visit/inspection. The last step is Board approval. All information obtained in the application process is kept confidential among the CaPR representative involved in the application process.
When matching a dog with a person the dog’s skill set, size and temperament are considered. The person’s needs and personality are considerations as well. We do not use a first in, first out waitlist model. Our goal is to make the best possible match for a successful partnership.
When a suitable canine partner is available, the person receiving the dog participates in Partnership Training. Partnership Training is designed to give the individual the necessary skills and knowledge to handle and care for a service dog. Partnership training last for approximately two weeks and includes hands on experience in the individual’s home, work and/or school environments. When a person demonstrates that he or she can safely handle and care for their service dog, Partnership Training ends; however, service dog partnerships are evaluated on a monthly basis for the first year and less frequently over the life of the partnership.
All CaPR dogs are placed in Colorado so that we are available to support the partnership and provide follow up services as needed.
HTB: Who qualifies for a service dog from your organizations? What are the costs to them?
LP: There are two major considerations. To qualify for a CaPR service dog, a person must have a mobility limiting condition and be a Colorado resident. CaPR only places dogs in Colorado because we are committed to providing follow up services for the life of the partnership. About half of CaPR’s clients have spinal cord injuries. Others have mobility limiting conditions such as multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy and limitations due to strokes. People who lack the maturity or cognitive ability to handle a service dog on their own are eligible to receive a facilitated (supervised) service dog under the guidance of an able bodied facilitator who is usually a spouse, parent or caregiver. Facilitated service dogs are taught the same skills as service dogs. There is a $3,500 placement fee for service dogs and facilitated service dogs.
Canine Partners also trains professional therapy dogs. Professional therapy dogs provide therapeutic intervention to people with disabilities under the guidance of a healthcare professional, physical therapist, speech therapist, special education teacher or other qualified professionals. Interactions with the dog are incorporated into therapeutic or individualized education plans. Professional therapy dogs are used in institutional settings and by private practitioners. CaPR therapy dogs are trained to do many service dog skills as well as skills for the specific type of therapeutic intervention. The application process for a professional to receive a profession therapy dog is similar to the service dog application process. There is a $2,500 placement fee for professional therapy dogs.
HTB: Linda, what inspired you to get involved with Canine Partners of the Rockies? How can others get involved?
LP: In 1996 I was a volunteer puppy raiser for another service dog organization. It was a personal growth experience that I totally enjoyed and which inspired me to raise several more dogs for that organization. When Canine Partners of the Rockies was founded in 2002, I was approached and asked if I would train CaPR Puppy Raisers. Seeing other people being transformed by and enjoying the puppy raising experience further inspired me. Little by little I became more and more involved with Canine Partners and eventually became the Program and Training Director.
What inspires me to stay involved is the profound difference I’ve seen these dogs make in the lives of people with disabilities.