Canine Companions Give Wounded Vets A Helping Hand
Video by Katie Euphrat
Doing even the simplest tasks like picking something up off the floor can be impossible if you’re severely disabled. That’s where assistance dogs can be a godsend.
Canine Companions for Independence, or CCI, in Oceanside, provides them for free. And a growing number of wounded veterans are getting them.
At a recent graduation ceremony for assistance dog, puppies walk down the isle to meet their owners. Volunteer trainers have taken care of these dogs since they were eight weeks old.
Sondra Thiederman has trained seven of these puppies. She said she teaches them a variety of basic commands.
"So we start with those very preliminary ones. The sit, the down, the stay, the stand," said Thiederman, with her dog, Rima, by her side. "Things like lap, so they will jump up, only the front part of them, onto your laps. A visit command; they rest their chin on your lap. And, you know, several others that are foundation for the professional training, that the wonderful instructors at CCI do."
Thiederman and other volunteers later turn the dogs over to CCI for nine months of advanced training.
Becky Miller is one of CCI’s instructors.
'In professional training, we train the dogs to do up to 50 different commands, different things that will assist an individual with a physical disability just get through their every day life," Miller pointed out.
And today, these fully trained dogs will be paired up with their new owners like Marine Corporal Gabriel Martinez. Last Thanksgiving, he lost both of his legs in an explosion in Afghanistan. He’s been rehabbing at San Diego’s Balboa Naval Medical Center.
For the last two weeks, Martinez has been in intensive training with his new dog, Wonka.
"I guess I had good training before, you know," said Martinez, smiling. "Boot camp teaches you obedience and all that. And so it’s kind of…you know, I’m pretty good with commands, and so, I guess I can of tie to the two together that way. But, there was no combat involved in this."
Martinez said Wonka will be a terrific companion.
"He’s as obedient as it gets," said the 22-year-old Marine. "When he’s working, you’d think he’s the most, you know, solemn dog. He’s mellow, he’s, he does his job. But as soon as I give him the release command, he’s a dog, he comes alive, he’s all about fetch, he’s loyal, and I got the best of both worlds with him."
CCI’s Miller said her agency launched a special effort four years ago, when it introduced its Wounded Veterans program.
"We realized back in 2007 that there was a really great need to serve the soldiers coming back from the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq," Miller recalled.
The dogs perform some amazing tasks.
Like this golden retriever, Hillary.
"Hillary, get….That a girl!" commanded her owner.
The dog grabs a leather pouch off the ground with her mouth.
"That’s it, work! Work!" her owner exclaimed.
Within seconds, Hillary hops up and places the bag on her owner’s lap.
At high noon, the young graduates parade down the aisle. The applause is steady and enthusiastic as the announcer reads off the names.
"Tegan the 2nd, raised by Taylor and Jim Bachelor of California," the announcer said from the podium. "This is the 11th dog that they have raised."
The applause builds as people get their fully-trained dogs.
And then, comes the big moment….
"The next graduate I’d like to introduce is graduate corporal Gabriel Martinez, United State Marine Corps of San Diego, California."
Martinez breaks into a big smile as his new companion, Wonka, joins him onstage. The crowd gives them a standing ovation.
Since its founding in 1975, CCI has given assistance dogs to nearly 3,700 people.