Tommy Cohen loves dogs and needed a bar mitzvah project. So it seemed natural to combine the two and raise a puppy to help the disabled. His bar mitzvah at Havurah Shalom was in February 2012. He got 8-week- old Jalina that May. Now, with Jalina fully trained and helping a young autistic boy, Tommy is ready for more. Five-month-old Piper, a lovely golden retriever/Lab mix is Tommy’s second Canine Companion project.
Canine Companions for Independence (cci.org) started in 1975 in a home office and garage in Santa Rosa, CA. Since then, it has become the largest nonprofit provider of assistance dogs, with five regional training centers. Puppies are carefully bred and sent to homes across the country when they are 8 weeks old. When they are between 15 and 18 months, they return to CCI centers for six to nine months of advanced training before someone who needs their help receives a dog free of charge.
“I thought that would be a cool thing to do,” says Tommy’s mother, Janie Cohen. “Tommy was such a good dog trainer when we took our pet golden retriever for classes. The hard thing for me was worrying I’d mess up, that the dog would flunk because of something I did.”
Tommy says simply, “You have to like dogs. Don’t get too nervous; be confident. It’s easier than it seems.”
The task can seem daunting to someone without experience, but formal training, videos and regular meetings with fellow volunteers help. “We teach about 30 commands,” Janie says, explaining that many of them lead to advanced training. “Take the ‘up’ command or shaking hands. Ultimately, the dog will turn a light switch on and off. They learn to ‘tug’ so they can pull something open and closed, and ‘drop’ so they will drop things in someone’s lap. You have to be consistent, use repetition and realize that progress comes in slow steps.
“In addition to obedience, our job is to socialize them for everywhere a person who needs assistance will go – like crowds, restaurants and elevators,” Janie says. “They are a social bridge. Instead of thinking, ‘there’s that kid with a disability,’ other kids think, ‘there’s that kid with the cool dog.’ ”
Still, discipline can be challenging when dealing with a furry, adorable puppy. “One of the hardest things was keeping to CCI guidelines,” Tommy says. “The dogs can’t get on chairs and couches or eat off the floor. They’re trained not just to go to the bathroom outside, but also only to go when you tell them.” Of course, the future recipient is welcome to relax the rules, which is easier than teaching older dogs new tricks.
All of their efforts paid off when Tommy saw 10-year-old Sam Eisenkraft’s reaction to Jalina. “Sam is impacted by autism,” his mother, Kristi Eisenkraft, says. “We didn’t think the dog would fix everything, but we thought it could help Sam come outside of his world a little more. It’s another avenue for teaching responsibility. It’s hard for children with disabilities to have chores, but he feeds the dog. He asks for her, she calms him and he exercises more because he takes her for longer walks. And it’s helped bridge the social gap. So many people are interested in Sam’s dog, and one little girl brings her black Lab over to play. A big piece is bringing people to us. We are also experiencing a new culture of dog owners, and they are quite lovely.”
The Eisenkrafts and Cohens stay in touch and share Jalina stories and photos. “It’s hard to say good-bye, but it’s the best feeling when the dog graduates,” Janie says. “It takes a lot of commitment, but it was so worth it. Seeing them together was incredibly moving.”
“We got to meet the family when she graduated. It was cool,” Tommy says. Now he is happy to repeat the experience all over with his new puppy, Piper. “It’s great when you turn the dogs in and you see how they are helping.”