Canine Companions main
There were puppies in the aisles of The Great Big Greenhouse & Nursery on a recent Monday, and they were on a mission.
A baker’s dozen of dogs were in this group, golden retrievers, Labradors and mixes of the two, all about a year old or so. You’d expect boundless energy, but these dogs were calm, collected and focused, words rarely used in the same sentence when talking about puppies.
They’re working dogs-in-training, and they were presented with a task. One pup was placed sprawled to one side of an aisle at the Huguenot Road business, then a row of doggie treats was lined up on the other side of the walkway. Then, the other dogs were led between the treats and the prone pup with the goal of going the distance without bolting to scarf down a treat or play with a friend.
The pups and their humans were at the nursery as part of a training and socializing event for the Virginia chapter of Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit that provides canine service companions for free to people with special needs and disabilities.
Dogs can be trained to help with a variety of situations. They may become seizure alert companions, or work with people physical challenges like cerebral palsy, or people with autism. These are the kinds of dogs that may provide help with a variety of tasks, from opening a handicapped-accessible door with a paw, or flipping a light switch on with a nose. They are trained to get half into your lap to allow someone in a wheelchair to care for them or give them a hug.
Since its founding in the 1970s, Canine Companions has placed 5,000 dogs. There are about 1,053 puppy raisers across the nation, including 25-30 in the Old Dominion Chapter. The volunteers provide homes, love and training to the puppies for about 18 months before they are sent to Canine Companions’ regional headquarters in Medford, New York.
“Everybody really puts their heart and soul into it; it’s a lot of work,” says Williamsburg resident Monica Overturf. She and her husband, Greg, are on their second companion-to-be pup. Their first trainee, Joanie, graduated in August and is now a full-fledged service companion for an adult owner in Massachusetts. Joanie’s human is keeping in touch with the Overturfs and updating them on how the pup is doing.
Greg Books of Front Door Dog Training in Goochland leads the more formal portion of the session at the nursery. He’s been working with the nonprofit since 2006. "It has been the most rewarding part of my business,” he says.
Canine Companions has been a boon for Midlothian resident Jackie McCool and her family. Her oldest son, Gavin, wanted to take on a dog to raise, and the family agreed, and her other boys, Logan and Ethan, also share in the experience.
“”They get to do something beyond themselves,” she says.
The puppy-raising volunteers make a major commitment to their charges. They must be available to supervise the dogs throughout the day. They also provide all food and pay all expenses for care, including veterinarian bills and surgeries. Home visits from program staff can occur at any time to ensure that a dog is being well cared for.
Susan Coon of Colonial Heights has worked with Canine Companions since 2013. She got involved after talking at a fair with a program volunteer who had raised 22 dogs. Now, the Coons are on their third pup, who goes wherever the family goes, from Special Olympics events to bowling.
“I treat them like my children,” says Coon.
Like other puppy raisers, the Coons went to graduation for their dogs. The ceremonies are held at the New York headquarters after the Canine Companions finish their training and are given to their new owner. The puppy raisers hand the leash over to the dog’s owner at the event.
Trainers know the dogs are going to help someone in need, but it’s still an emotional event and tears may well flow. “It’s not easy to give them up like that,” says Coon.
Brooks gives credit to the pup raisers. “It takes a big heart to release the dog at the end,” he says. “It’s bittersweet.”
You can meet the dogs and learn more about the program on Saturday, Oct. 22, at the inaugural DogFest Walk 'n Roll. The Canine Companions fundraiser will be held noon to 4 p.m. at West Broad Village, 3930 Wild Goose Lane in Short Pump.
The Old Dominion chapter is a close-knit group. They attend community events, and participate in training sessions held a couple times each month and at informal socialization and training times such as this session at the nursery.
“It’s kind of like an extended family,” says Coon.
Formal training held every other week is usually conducted by Colleen Roberts, a 12-year veteran with the program. Her current companion is Lady V11, a 1-year-old Lab. The Cumberland resident describes herself as a “serial puppy raiser,” and says the nonprofit enables her to indulge her compulsion.
“It’s a pretty addictive organization,” she says. “It’s a way to combine a love of dogs with helping people.”
The dog-breeding aspect of the program is centered around its national headquarters in Santa Rosa, California. Roberts says the dogs are bred to have a wonderful temperament, to please and cuddle. Labradors and golden retrievers are the breeds primarily used because they are working dogs that are willing to wait and be patient. The breeder companions are also volunteers, says Overturf.
When the puppies are 8 weeks old, they are sent to puppy raisers across the nation. Dogs destined for local chapter volunteers first go to the New York base, where the pups and their handlers meet. “You get a day orientation, and from there you are on your own,” says Overturf.
If the dogs don’t graduate from the more intense training program in New York, the puppy raisers have first choice and can take the dog in to keep as part of their family.
Emily Bracken’s passion for working with dogs was ignited a decade ago by working with Canine Companions, and it’s led to a career as a trainer at Dog Lover’s Obedience School of Richmond. She’s on her tenth pup-in-training; this one is named Bandit.
Her volunteer peers are an extended family for Bracken.
“It’s definitely not just about the dogs,” she says.
Tom Newton, an equine veterinarian from Crozier, is working with his second companion, named Eton II. His first is currently in the training program in New York, and Newton plans to drive up for the dog’s graduation in November. He’s also traveled to California to visit the mothers of his dogs and their people, and now has friends all over, courtesy of Canine Companions.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” he says.
A weekly roundup of health and medicine news
Regional Rehabilitation Facility set for Goochland
The hospital is a joint venture between Sheltering Arms Hospital and VCU Health System and will be known as Sheltering Arms Rehab Institute, according to a release from the two partners in the project. It’s an inpatient, rehabilitation facility that will offer services to people “who have sustained a stroke, brain injury, spinal cord injury, or similar illnesses or injuries.”
The partners expect to file a Certificate of Public Need with the state by month’s end, with a decision expected by early summer 2017. The facility opening is projected for 2020.
Health Insurance Trends
Unemployment may be down, but there’s been a continued reduction in employer-provided group health insurance since the Great Recession.
That’s the result of a study led by a VCU School of Business professor in the current issue of The American Journal of Accountable Care. The study led by Etti Baranoff, an VCU associate professor, looks at the nation’s health care system before and after implementation of the Affordable Care Act, according to a VCU release. The researchers reported that the drop in employer-based insurance and a rise in Medicaid participation were trends that preceded the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and have “reshaped the heath care system.”
“The ACA may or may not have enhanced the trends, but other factors were also in play, one surely being the Great Recession during the late 2000s, which reduced employment and cut off former employees from access to group insurance,” according to the report.
NAMIWalks 5K is set for 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 15, at Innsbrook, 4951 Lake Brook Drive in Glen Allen. The walk is a fundraiser and awareness outreach for NAMI Virginia, the state affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The state affiliate raised $177,000 last year, according to a release.
A $5.85 million fundraising effort to consolidate services of the Goochland Free Clinic and Family Services has gotten a $100,000 boost from the Virginia Nonprofit Housing Coalition.
The award was announced on Tuesday. The clinic and family series are currently offered by the nonprofit at three facilities that will be replaced with a 20,000-square-foot building at 3001 River Road West.
Breast health and Parkinson’s disease are the topics for free health seminars in October offered by VCU Health at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.
The session on breast health issues begins at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 13 and will feature VCU Massey Cancer Center experts who will be available to answer questions and discuss breast cancer care.
The session on Parkinson’s disease is at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 18 and will be led by Mark Baron, interim director of the VCU Parkinson’s Movement Disorder Center. He will talk about research he’s collaborated on regarding using eye tracking to differentiate between Parkinson’s and other disorders.
Both sessions will be held in the Kelly Education Center at the facility, 1800 Lakeside Ave. Registration is recommended.