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Animal News Desk / Cathy Kangas

Published 12:12 pm, Sunday, January 20, 2013
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The presidential inauguration parade on Monday, Jan. 21, will feature one of my favorite organizations -- Canine Companions for Independence. More than 2,800 organizations applied to march in this gala event and only 43 were accepted. CCI places highly trained assistance dogs with disabled children and adults throughout the country. To me, however, its greatest contribution is providing these dogs to veterans with disabilities.

Fifty-seven dogs and 134 Canine Companion participants will march Jan. 21, including Danielle Drazen, of Woodbridge, who volunteers her time to train puppies to become assistance dogs. Danielle is a part-time student at Southern Connecticut State University, where she is studying to be a special education teacher.

She will march with Sandy, a half Labrador and half golden retriever. CCI finds that these two breeds make excellent assistance dogs because they are loving, loyal and are by nature great at retrieving objects for wheelchair users.

They are also trained to pull wheelchairs, open and close doors, and provide comfort to those in challenging circumstances. There are currently 391 people on CCI's wait list. The organization has a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, which means that most of the money it raises goes directly to its program rather than administrative expenses. Volunteers are key to CCI's success. There are more than 3,000 volunteers and another 1,050 puppy raisers nationwide.

Danielle received training as a puppy raiser at CCI and has raised three dogs to date. She also visits other puppy raisers in Massachusetts to learn more about working with Sandy. Typically, the dogs receive 16 to 18 months of training before they are placed with a disabled child or adult. The training is so intense that only 40 percent of all dogs trained actually become assistance dogs.

Danielle also takes Sandy to her father's law firm to teach her socialization skills.

"My dad specializes in elder law and many of his clients are wheelchair users, so Sandy learns how to interact appropriately with them," she noted.

"We really need more people to train puppies. There is a pressing need for these dogs, which are provided free of charge. Anyone with the time and commitment can learn how to teach a puppy to become an assistance dog."

Debra Dougherty, executive director for CCI's Northeast Region, said, "It is an honor for our organization to participate in the Inaugural Parade. Our staff, volunteers and dogs will be seen by millions and we hope that this will lead to much needed support of our mission to provide assistance dogs to even more disabled people around the country."

I hope when you watch the Inaugural Parade, you will look for Danielle and Sandy and all the other wonderful volunteers and dogs of CCI. Then consider going to the website www.cci.org and making a donation so that more people who are in need can receive one of these wonderful dogs.

Cathy Kangas is a member of the board of directors of the Humane Society of the United States. She can be reached at cathy@praibeauty.com.