Canine Companions for Independence Interview

Kelly Roper
Canine Companion pup; Image used with permission from Jeanine Konopelski of CCI.

Jeanine Konopelski, National Director of Marketing Communications for Canine Companions for Independence, takes time to share information about service dogs in this exclusive interview. Learn how service dogs are selected, raised and trained, as well as how they are paired with their human partners.

Canine Companions for Independence Interview with Jeanine Konopelski

A Little Background

LoveToKnow (LTK): Tell us about the purpose of Canine Companions for Independence (CCI).

Jeanine Konopelski (JK): Canine Companions for Independence is a national nonprofit that trains assistance dogs for people with disabilities. The dogs help the child or adult live a life of increased independence by assisting with physical tasks such as picking up dropped items like a phone or keys that are out of reach, pulling open a door, switching on the light or pulling a wheelchair.

LTK: Where do the dogs you train come from?

JK: Based in Santa Rosa, CA since 1975, Canine Companions uses specially bred Labrador and Golden Retrievers from Northern California.

LTK: Are there particular breeds that you either prefer to work with or you find easier to train?

JK: Labradors and Golden Retrievers are the perfect working dogs. They're great at retrieving, have an excellent work ethic and are eager to please their partner. CCI has used other breeds, but the success rate of the Retriever is the most beneficial as a working dog.

Training Canine Companions

LTK: What is your basic canine evaluation and training process like?

JK: During the first two weeks, dogs are screened and undergo x-rays and medical tests as well as tests to evaluate their temperaments. During the first three months, the dog reviews and builds upon the basic obedience commands learned as puppies. It is during this semester that the dogs begin to work around the wheelchair and learn the retrieve command. Those that pass the first semester continue into their second semester of training.

The second three-month semester finishes the commands the dogs will need to know such as "pull" and "light-switch". They learn over 40 commands and practice working in different environments. During training, the dogs are screened to see if they truly have what it takes to become a CCI assistance dog. Those that do have what it takes prepare for Team Training. This is where the dogs are paired with a recipient, and both human and dog are trained to work together.

LTK: Approximately how long does it take for a dog to become a Canine Companion from start to finish?

JK: Puppies are born in the homes of volunteers. Once the pups turn eight weeks old, they are assigned to a volunteer puppy raiser from across the country. The volunteer puppy raiser will take the puppy to basic obedience classes and teach the puppy about 20 commands.

The volunteer will also socialize the puppy in various environments - on a bus, in a restaurant, a library - anywhere a person with a disability may need to travel with their dog.

When the puppy is about 1 1/2 years old, the volunteer turns the dog in at one of five professional training centers. Professional instructors spend six to nine months with the dogs while teaching them advanced commands, and each dog ultimately learns over 40 commands. When a dog is ready, a match will be made at a Team Training session, a two-week class that the human attends to learn the commands the dog already knows. By now, the dogs are usually about two years old.

LTK: What are the different types of services these dogs are trained to perform?

JK: There are three basic divisions.

  • Service Dogs mainly work with adults with physical disabilities.
  • Skilled Companions primarily assist children.
  • Facility Dogs work with groups of people in professional settings such as hospitals, physical therapy, special education classes and courtroom settings.

These three types of dogs are trained in over 40 commands, including retrieving and delivering dropped items, tugging and pushing. Service Dogs can pull a lightweight manual wheelchair and turn lights on and off. Hearing Dogs have a different skill set, primarily involving alerting and orienting recipients that are deaf or hard of hearing to sounds. A range of people with disabilities can benefit from an assistance dog, including people with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, autism and developmental delay.

LTK: How long does a dog remain in service with its human companion, and what happens to that dog when it is retired?

JK: As the dog begins to get older, the graduate and CCI staff develop a transition plan to make this process as easy as possible for the grad and the assistance dog. After retirement, some dogs remain as pets with their graduate partners; others are placed into loving, adoptive homes to enjoy their well-deserved retirement, or the dog may go back to the home of the volunteer puppy raiser.

Applying for a Canine Companion

Girl laughing with her service dog; Image used with permission from Jeanine Konopelski.

LTK: How does someone go about applying for a Canine Companion?

JK: Applying for a Canine Companions assistance dog is a multi-step process. An application request form can be completed online, and a CCI applicant coordinator from the nearest Regional Training Center will review the application and determine if, and what type of, an assistance dog best suits the person's needs. Selected applicants will be invited to attend a two-week Team Training course at the nearest regional training center. Visit our website's at apply page for all the details.

LTK: Is there a cost involved for the person who receives a Canine Companion?

JK: Thanks to donations from generous individuals and corporations, Canine Companions assistance dogs are provided free of charge as well as the ongoing follow-up services to ensure a high quality partnership for the life of the placement.

Get in Touch with CCI

LoveToKnow would like to thank Jeanine Konopelski for participating in this interview. If you would like to learn more about any aspect of CCI's service dog program, visit CCI.org.

Canine Companions for Independence Interview