Coppell, TX

Canine Companions for Independence holds annual event celebrating the bond between humans and their dogs

Stacey Doud

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"Freckles" and "Orbit" hang out while their people chat at DogFestStacey Doud

Each year, Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) holds an event to raise money, educate the public about their programs and allow graduates the opportunity for fellowship. After having to skip last year because of the pandemic, the event, dubbed "DogFest," was held at the brand new Sound at Cypress Waters in Coppell on October 2.

The celebration featured games and activities for dogs and their humans. A crowd favorite was "Dog Musical Chairs," in which canine contestants and their owners walked in a circle while music played. When the music stopped, the last dog to follow the "sit" command was eliminated, though every pooch got a tasty treat.

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Dog Musical ChairsStacey Doud

CCI was founded in 1975 to place trained “therapy” dogs with folks who need a little assistance. While many of these canines are of the larger breeds, such as Labrador Retrievers, there were also plenty of smaller breeds present, such as Dachshunds, Terriers, and Pugs.

Amazingly, Canine Companions provides these highly trained pups at no charge to folks who qualify for the program. The dogs are trained to do things, such as open doors, pull out laundry from the dryer, reach things in high places and, if the owner is in a wheelchair, the dogs can pull them around when needed. They can even help Autistic owners communicate with the world around them, and sense when an epileptic owner is on the verge of a seizure.

The process to get a dog from puppy to human companion takes over two years. CCI only deals with one breeder, which is in California. The dogs are bred based on their personalities, temperaments, and how they get along with humans. After the pups are old enough, they are sent to "puppy raisers," who act as caretakers and trainers for 18-24 months. After that, the dog goes into "advanced training" and gets paired with one of the CCI clients.

“We keep [the puppies] for about 18 months to two years,” said volunteer and puppy raiser Dawn Thompson. “We do all of their basic puppy training like you would with any new puppy. They have about 40 commands that they have to learn. After that, they go to advanced training, where Canine Companions decides which kind of service dog he or she is going to be,” she said.

Thompson was the puppy raiser for a Labrador named “Freckles,” who was placed with a young man who is on the Autistic Spectrum, Ryan Curry, who is non-verbal.

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Ryan Curry stands with his dog FrecklesStacey Doud

“Ryan and I are graduates of the Canine Companions Program and we've had Freckles coming up on five years this November,” said Ryan’s mom, Stephanie Curry.

According to Ryan’s parents, Freckles has made a big difference in Ryan’s social habits and basic living skills.

“We can take Freckles out into different environments, and Ryan holds on to her handle and he will stay with us so that he doesn't get distracted by things in the environment. It's also a really good social opportunity because Ryan spells on a letterboard to communicate, so a dog is always a good conversation starter. He can engage with friends or people in the community more now,” Curry said.

“Then there’s a little bit of personal responsibility at home,” Curry said. “Ryan is in charge of feeding Freckles in the morning and in the evening. And then we go for a walk. So, another benefit is an opportunity for physical activity.

“It's been great all around for our family and, and [Ryan and Freckles] get along real well. Ryan is not overly affectionate towards Freckles but he is affectionate enough. Like when [Freckles] comes up and she is all up in his business, he doesn’t mind. He likes doggie kisses,” Curry said.

Ryan interjected by spelling out, “My dog is the best.”

Ryan’s dad, Randy, said, “Our experience with Canine Companions as an organization is incredible. The way that they help even the graduates with benefits is amazing. For instance, they care for the dog if we go out of town. They have trainers who are really good. That's just one of the benefits. And plus, it's also good because it brings Freckles back in with other dogs, sort of like a follow-up [social] education. And of course, Dawn, who was our Puppy Raiser, is incredible. She's our friend.

The Currys said that the fact that they didn’t have to pay for this highly trained dog was a big plus.

“We have plenty of friends that have had to [pay out of pocket]. The cost can be over $10,000. And then, in addition, as Randy said, it's like the amount of constant contact [from Canine Companions] just making sure that, as graduates, that everything is okay. They take care of us. It's not like, ‘You're graduating. Get out.’ Even after going through the program, you're still part of the organization,” said Stephanie.

The Curry’s youngest child, daughter Grace, aspires to be a puppy raiser for Canine Companions when she gets old enough. “I just like dogs and yeah, I'd like to be able to help,” she said. She has seen how the dog has helped her family and wants to contribute her own time to the cause.

To learn more about Canine Companions, which stays in operation through grants and donations, visit Canine.org.

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