The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

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January 11, 2014

Leash lease short

Valley couple among 1,000 aides on dogs’ path to serve disabled

SELINSGROVE — SELINSGROVE — Peggy Peeler has a constant four-legged companion when she goes to work at Susquehanna University, out to eat at restaurants and while she shops.

His name is Romo and for 18 months, she and her husband, Tom, will raise the Labrador-golden retriever mix before returning him to the national nonprofit organization Canine Companions for Independence for advanced training as a service dog.

“That’s the hardest part,” Peeler said. “You love them as if they’re your own and then you have to give them back.”

The Peelers are among more than 1,000 volunteer puppy raisers who care for specially bred dogs provided by Canine Companions from 8 weeks to 18 months.

“We are responsible for turning in a well-socialized and obedient dog,” she said.

The organization then sends each dog to about nine months of advanced training to learn more than 50 commands so they provide companionship and assistance to children and adults with physical, developmental and emotional disabilities free of charge.

“That’s the silver lining,” Peeler said. “We get to raise (the dog) for 18 months and love them as if they’re our own, but then we turn them over for a greater good.”

Established in 1975, Canine Companions is the largest nonprofit provider of trained assistance dogs with five regional centers in the United States.

In nearly 40 years, the organization has provided about 4,200 dogs to the disabled. The $45,000 it costs to train each dog to work as a companion for about eight years is funded through charitable donations.

John Bentzinger, the northeast regional center spokesman, credits the volunteer puppy raisers with helping make the program a success.

“They’re the backbone of this organization,” he said. “The more puppies raised, the more people we can serve.”

There are between 120 and 150 disabled children and adults in the Northeast on a 1½-year waiting list to receive a service dog.

With more volunteers willing to socialize an animal, Bentzinger said, the wait time will be reduced.

The Peelers got involved with Canine Companions through their son, Chuck, the youngest of their three children, who volunteered to work for the service dog organization to fulfill a graduation project requirement at Selinsgrove Area High School.

Though they have a family dog, Sadie, now 6, “Chuck always wanted his own puppy,” Peeler said.

They received 8-week-old Putty in 2011 and for the next 18 months enjoyed socializing the “mellow” dog.

Volunteer puppy raisers are responsible for all normal expenses, including food and immunizations, and have to be strict in certain areas, such as not allowing the dog to eat table scraps off the floor or jump on furniture.

When it came time for the family to return 18-month-old Putty to the agency in November 2012, Peeler said, there was plenty of anguish.

About 50 percent of the animals successfully complete advance training and become service dogs, Bentzinger said.

Puppy raisers are given the option of adopting dogs that don’t work out, but Putty excelled and in August was paired with Amy Simurra, a physically disabled student from New York.

The Peelers received monthly progress reports about Putty’s training and later met Simurra, with whom they still keep in touch with on Facebook.

“It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” Peeler said of seeing Putty and Simurra united.

The Peelers are now empty-nesters, but they’ve found a way to keep busy.

For the past year, they’ve been raising another potential service dog, Romo, that they plan to turn over for training in August.

“It’s a wonderful, well-run program,” said Peeler, who is already considering taking in another dog. “I encourage people to explore it.”

For more information about Canine Companions for Independence or how to become a volunteer, visit www.cci.org

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