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October 8, 2012

Saying goodbye not easy for those who raise service dogs

Photos/David Lyne
"It's going to be hard, but it will be worthwhile knowing that Graves will be serving someone who needs help," Warrenton resident Zelinsky Michelle says of giving up the service dog she has raised.
Georgiana Watt and Andrews get together for a play date with Graves and Ms. Zelinsky. They must give up the dogs early next month.
Want to raise a pup?
An informational open house on becoming a CCI puppy raiser will take place 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 17, at the Middleburg American Legion post at 111 The Plains Road. For information, call 800-572-BARK (2275) or visit
Michelle Zelinsky and Georgiana Watt get little twinges when they look at calendars.

Nov. 9 approaches rapidly. On that day, the Fauquier women must relinquish young dogs they have raised since puppyhood for Canine Companions for Independence, the nation's largest provider of service dogs.

For almost 18 months, Ms. Zelinsky from Warrenton and Ms. Watt from The Plains have provided food, shelter, health care and "lots of love" for the yellow Labrador-golden retriever mixes. They also have taught the dogs 30 basic behavior commands and social skills.

"This is the most enjoyable thing I've ever done," says Ms. Zelinsky, a single, 50-year-old government contractor. "I've done other volunteering, but this has been the most rewarding. It combines my love of dogs with the ability to help people who are less fortunate than I."

Ms. Watt says: "I love animals. I train horses, so I figured I could train a puppy."

Both women decided to volunteer as puppy raisers after attending an April 2011 public awareness event for CCI in Middleburg. They didn’t know each other then.

After applying to CCI, each woman had a telephone interview with a CCI staffer from the organization's northeastern regional headquarters in Medford, Long Island, N.Y.

In June 2011, Ms. Zelinsky drove to New York to get her 8-month-old male pup, Graves. The following month, Ms. Watt got Andrews, half-brother to Graves.

"I had to go through a two-to-three-hour interview before I even met Andrews," says Ms. Watt. "The people at CCI are very professional, so they can determine fairly quickly if you would be suitable as a puppy raiser."

Andrews and Graves are among six CCI dogs being raised in Fauquier County. Ellen Turop, a regional director for CCI, says Fauquier volunteers have raised 15 dogs over the years. More than 65 percent of the CCI the volunteers raise multiple dogs.

Graves and Andrews are the first raised by Ms. Zelinsky and Ms. Watt. Both women want to do it again.

"I'm really hoping to come home with another puppy on Nov. 9, when I turn in Andrews," says Ms. Watt. "I haven't learned yet if one will be available."

Ms. Zelinsky says she may wait until her unemployed status changes before taking on another pup.

Training the pups

The commands Andrews and Graves have learned while in the care of their raisers include: sit, down, stay, speak (one bark), heel (to the person's left), side (to the person's right), car (get in the car), under (lie under a table), roll over and 21 more.

In addition to the at-home training, Ms. Watt and Ms. Zelinsky take their dogs twice a month to a CCI obedience school in Middleburg.

"It's a very supportive group," says Ms. Zelinsky. "If I'm having some trouble getting Graves to obey a particular command, I get tips and advice. It really helps."

The puppy trainers teach social skills by taking their dogs to work and to public places such as restaurants and stores. During those outings and in obedience sessions, the young dogs wear yellow vests that identify them as CCI dogs in training. (Fully trained dogs serving disabled people wear blue CCI vests.)

"When he's wearing the vest, Graves knows he's on the job and is well-behaved," says Ms. Zelinsky. "The rest of the time, he's just like any other young dog."

On a recent afternoon, Graves had a "play date" with Andrews at Ms. Watt's home off Zulla Road in northern Fauquier. Tails began wagging rapidly as soon as the dogs saw one another, but each stayed at his handler's side until being taken off leash. They ran side-by-side in an explosion of energy across an expansive lawn, wrestled playfully and had a tug-of-war with a dog toy.

"They need this time together, to burn off some energy," says Ms. Watt.

The final phase

Once Andrews and Graves reach 18 months, they must be returned to the CCI regional headquarters in Medford for six months of advanced training, learning more than 60 task commands from professional instructors. During that time, each dog gets evaluated for its ability to serve someone with lasting physical limitations caused by injury or disease.

"Our standards are exceedingly high," says John Bentzinger, a CCI public affairs officer. "Only about four out of 10 actually make it through the program."

Dogs that fail to earn certification get offered to other programs, such as companions for wounded veterans or courtroom comfort dogs for children under the stress of testifying. Dogs that go unplaced can be adopted by their puppyhood trainers.

CCI matches each successful dog with a disabled client on a waiting list. Clients spend two weeks at the Medford facility, learning commands and meeting the dogs that will go into service. After service dogs and clients are matched, a graduation ceremony takes place, with puppy trainers in attendance.

Saying goodbye to the dogs after 18 months of bonding is emotional for puppy raisers.

"It's going to be hard, but it will be worthwhile knowing that Graves will be serving someone who needs help," says Ms. Zelinsky.

Still, Nov. 9 looms large. The puppy raisers have to fill out some forms and send them to CCI in advance of the day of parting with Graves and Andrew.

"I filled them out and mailed them right away," says Ms. Watt, looking down and shaking her head. "I had to get it done and get them out of the house."

Ms. Zelinsky confesses to procrastination.

"The forms are on a table (at home). I just haven't been able to bring myself to filling them out yet," she says with a sigh.

Asked if they will travel together to Medford on Nov. 9, Ms. Zelinsky says, "No. I'm taking my mother with me for support."
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