Howard Magazine - Page 42 - At your Service

Howard Magazine
- Page 42
At your Service
By Lane Page
For Howard Magazine

"Gromit?” thought Sharon O’Neill. “What kind of a name is Gromit?”

But when the Columbia woman learned that he’s a British cartoon dog, and a very clever one at that, she was OK with the name of the Lab/golden retriever mix puppy she had signed on to raise for Canine Companions for Independence.

CCI is the largest nonprofit assistance dog provider in the world. Its graduates go on to aid individuals with over 60 types of disabilities, physical and emotional, or to public service work including bomb sniffing, border patrol, customs, institutional visitation or even companions in court. And those puppy raisers are the backbone of the organization, says John Bentzinger, CCI public relations and marketing coordinator, Northeast region.

To keep all the puppies straight, the carefully bred litters are labeled alphabetically and pups are named by letter of the litter. Names must not be changed through the life of dog — one of many rules to which all puppy raisers and also eventual CCI clients (6,117 since its founding in 1975) must agree.

For their first 18 months, the puppies lead “the life of Riley” with their raisers: enjoying love and attention, playing, socializing, getting basic canine training (with tasty rewards, of course), and being presented with every life situation their human buddies can provide.

They are exposed to people who look different, including those wearing hats, and learn to appropriately deal with riding a bus and the Metro, shopping in a grocery store, crossing urban highways, visiting healthcare facilities and airport terminals, hearing noisy truck engines, spending a day at the office or on a farm, even attending an event at the NSA. In their bright yellow capes, Gromit and his fellows go places ordinary dogs never can.

For O’Neill, a now-retired physical therapist, the journey began in the ‘80s, when she saw an ad for CCI and made a note that it was something she wanted to do once she was no longer working. And she didn’t forget.

“Training Gromit to help a stranger is just a way to continue using my skills to allow a person to be more independent and achieve more enjoyment of life.

“Gromit is an ambassador of joy and brings smiles to people’s faces every day,” she adds.

But what will happen next May when the time comes to