I was on my way to meet a friend for dinner when I got the dreaded call. The call no puppy-raiser wants to get.
Canine Companions for Independence was reaching out to tell me that Spike, who I had raised to be an assistance dog, was being released from the program. It felt unreal, like I was dreaming. Such a good boy, so socialized, smart, loving, and friendly. He was confident and doing everything right, learning new things every day from his trainer Kim Furino. How could he be released?
The reason was purely medical. Spike was diagnosed with moderate hip dysplasia. It’s relatively common in labradors and golden retrievers. Canine Companions, though, has a very advanced genetics program that has bred out 95 percent of hip dysplasia from their dogs, which was another reason I was shocked. Unfortunately, Spike was one of the unlucky 5 percent.
This was tough, after all the work I’ve put in — the day-to-day effort, the socializing, the teaching, and preparing him for this advanced training. Almost half of these dogs don’t graduate for a myriad of reasons, so I always knew it was a possibility. But I really didn’t expect it and it hit me so hard.
It costs on average about $50,000 to raise and train each Canine Companions for Independence Service dog. And we want each dog to live a long and healthy life with their companions, and service them to the best of their ability. A dog like Spike, with hip dysplasia, may start presenting symptoms at 2 or 3 years old, and have to be retired after all that effort, as the risk is too much, and not fair to his partner.
But there’s often good that can come from something sad. If a dog is released from the program, the puppy-raiser has the option of adopting the puppy — and that’s exactly what I have done. Spike and I are happily living in California and we will soon welcome his little brother, puppy Tyrus (or "Lil T," as we'll call him).
And there’s more good news. Spike will soon have a new job. Canine Companions is starting up a certification program for therapy dogs. They asked if he would become the first dog in the pilot program, and of course we said yes. Here’s a description:
“Canine Companions dogs that aren’t suitable for the highly specialized role of a service dog for a person with disabilities have gone on to other careers, including explosives and narcotics detection, search and rescue, and more. More than one-third of dogs released from training at Canine Companions serve as therapy dogs for their communities. A therapy dog is a pet that helps provide comfort for people in need. Therapy dogs bring a smile to many; from victims of natural or manmade disaster, a child struggling to read with confidence, individuals recovering from illness or injury in a hospital setting, and seniors in an assisted living facility who need a friend."
“As Canine Companions looks to serve our community in better ways and increase its impact, we are proud to announce that the national board of directors has approved the launch of a small therapy dog certification pilot program in 2020,” adds Sarah Birman, director of training and client services. “With so many Canine Companions released dogs already performing therapy work, it is a natural progression to provide this program to our volunteer puppy-raisers.”
The 2020 pilot is limited to five placements in Northern California and will help assess the processes and training protocols for the therapy dog program. If the pilot is deemed a success, Canine Companions will begin implementing a broader-scale certification program with eligible, newly released Canine Companions dogs starting in 2021. Volunteer puppy-raisers may opt to participate in the therapy dog program or may adopt the released dog as a regular pet.
Given how well-trained a dog like Spike is, he’s a perfect candidate to be a certified therapy dog. Many puppy-raisers in my situation do this through other organizations, and now Canine Companions has decided to directly oversee their own certification program.
Just to be clear, this is very different from a service dog work. And it’s also different from being an emotional support dog. I’m happy he will find his own line of work as a "civilian" dog providing therapy to those in need.
Yes, I was devastated when I heard Spike was not going to fulfill what I thought was his destiny — to enrich the day-to-day life as a life partner of someone with a disability. I remember the phone call distinctly, in the rain, such a feeling of loss and despair. (Spike was named for my brother Kyle who died almost three years ago from complications from his paraplegia, which made this loss feel so much more profound.)
Spike, though, will find his purpose. We will volunteer together and make a difference for people needing soothing canine therapy. He’ll be a great role model for puppy Tyrus, and for the Canine Companions puppies I’ll be raising in the future.
I always told Spike he was meant to do great things. And he already has. I am often humbled by how many people have been following Spike’s story. I’m incredibly grateful for everyone’s support of him and of Canine Companions. Together we have helped so many people live more independent lives. And guess what? There’s more to come. These dogs all end up exactly where they are meant to be. And for Spike, that place is here by my side.