Canine Companions: Providing Exceptional Dogs for Exceptional People

Southwest Region of Canine Companions Trains and Matches Service Dogs with Those With a Physical Disability

“There is a plan and a purpose, a value to every life, no matter what its location, age, gender or disability.” -Sharron Angle

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for dogs. I grew up with a Border Collie who was so smart and energetic. As a teen, I would try to save any dog I possibly could, searching for their owners if they were missing, or feeding them if they didn’t look like they had eaten. As a college student, I fostered sick dogs in my apartment to help a local non-profit. So when Geno Spatafore from Canine Companions in San Diego invited me to their Oceanside location for a tour, I was immediately interested. This non-profit organization raises puppies for over two years before handing them off to aid a person with disabilities. They are always interested in accepting volunteers, and they are working diligently to make sure that those with a disability in San Diego can get the help they need. In this video with Geno, who is an active volunteer at Canine Companions, you’ll hear about the history and goals of Canine Companions, the day to day activities, training descriptions from Contract Trainer Cath Phillips, and information on how you can help. Take a look:

Canine Companions placed 59 dogs in homes of the disabled in the Southwest Region in 2015, and they are on track to do a similar number this year. They have around $40,000 to $50,000 invested into each dog before it gets placed, but if there weren’t so many volunteers, that number would be much higher.

The breeds that Canine Companions works with are the Black Labrador, Yellow Labrador, Golden Retriever or a mix of any two of the three. The program works with specific breeders in a closed loop system, so that Canine Companions knows the dogs will be a perfect fit for the program. Male Labs or Golden Retrievers are always pure bred so that breeding never becomes an issue, but many times, it’s the puppies with a mix of the two breeds that end up having the most knowledge and intuition during training.

Canine Companions

Puppy raisers (volunteers) watch over and take care of the puppies from 8 weeks old until they are 18 months old. They spend a lot of time with them, teaching them commands and practicing, and also going to group puppy classes, which is required for all puppies and puppy raisers. Every other Saturday different puppies show up for a 45 min to 90 min class in Oceanside with Contract Trainer Cath Phillips. The puppy raisers usually also pay for the veterinarian bills and dog food. Some puppies are even raised in prison systems, but do get allowed out of prison every so often to spend a few weeks outside of the facility. During their time outside of the prison, they experience sounds of ambulances, pots whistling on the stove, and other things they would not otherwise experience in prison. This is a very strict process (read more about it here) where four to five prisoners rotate the responsibilities of the puppy raising until the puppy is old enough for graduation. The puppies raised in a prison setting surprisingly have a higher rate of graduation, so this program truly helps inmates as well as the puppies they care for.

By the time the puppies are around 18 months old, they will have been taught about 30 commands by their volunteers. Then, they continue their training with Canine Companions’ staff instructors for an additional six months before they complete two weeks of Team Training alongside their new partners. By the time they graduate, they know about 40 commands to help people with disabilities with practical tasks like opening doors, retrieving dropped objects, activating light switches and more.

Canine Companions

After they are fully trained and ready to be matched, they go through a two week process where people with disabilities and their families reside on site at Canine Companions! There are many rooms, just like a hotel, except that each room has its own accessible bathroom, making it easy for all people with disabilities to come, learn and match perfectly with a dog. The volunteers and professional trainers who have been working with the dogs their entire lives usually know almost immediately which dog will be the best fit for each person.

New York Times best selling author Dean Koontz and his wife Gerda are significant benefactors for Canine Companions. A portion of Mr. Koontz donation went to the building of the Team Training Center and many of the studio apartment-style rooms where the recipients of service dogs reside during the matching process. Mr. Koontz became interested in Canine Companions while doing research for one of his books.  He has subsequently written several books about his dog, Trixie, from the dog’s perspective.  Trixie has now passed, and Mr. Koontz, his wife, and their golden retriever, Anna, reside in Southern California and remain huge supporters of Canine Companions.

Canine Companions

Although the waiting list is around two years to receive a trained service dog from Canine Companions, do not let that discourage you or someone you know, from applying. You can go right on the Canine Companions website and click “apply for a dog” to begin the process. Although there has been some “cape fraud” debates about dogs in public providing service to their owners, (check out this article and about a “service cat” attacking patrons in a restaurant) Canine Companions strives to be the gold standard when it comes to service animals. About non-service dogs, Geno said,”A dog can’t help but help you mentally,” however at Canine Companions, they focus on a few very specific and clearly defined service roles for their program. There are four categories of service animals: facility dogs, hearing dogs, service dogs and skilled companions. Learn all about the differences on this page of the Canine Companions website to decide which is best for you.

One thing Geno mentioned while I was touring the facility is how touching it is to see kids and the general public talking and reaching out to those with a disability to learn more about (or pet) their service animal. People with a disability don’t have to experience the awkward stares and comments, and instead can be included in conversations and even sought out, making them feel loved and appreciated. Of course, whenever you do interact with an individual and their working dog, you should always ask permission before touching and/or petting the animal.

Canine Companions

 If you’re a veteran, I thank you for serving our country. Also, I wanted to let you know that VA usually takes care of vet bills for service dogs that are matched with veterans with a disability, so do not let cost deter you from applying.
If you are not a person with a disability, there are so many ways you can still get involved with Canine Companions. The organization is always looking for puppy raisers, (apply online) and other volunteers to help around the site with housekeeping and maintenance tasks. You can also get some friends together (even if you don’t have a dog) and walk in DogFest! DogFest is a community outreach and fundraising event that is free to join. Participants can create a team and raise money in a competitive sense for the event, held this year at NTC Park at Liberty Station on Saturday, Oct, 29th. Find out more information on the site, and join in for the fun! There will be entertainment and vendors, and San Diego Lifestyle Blog will be participating too. Board member Lance Weir and his dog Auggie will be there to tell their inspirational story, and NBA legend Bill Walton will also make an appearance this year, so don’t miss out!
Canine Companions

Amanda Cascadden, Lance Weir, Auggie the dog, Geno Spatafore

Canine Companions is a non-profit that almost anyone can take an interest in. Whether you love dogs, have a family member with a disability or just appreciate what Canine Companions is doing to help people in San Diego, it is easy to see how incredible this organization truly is. This special facility in Oceanside is open for tours the first Thursday of every month, so stop by, say hello and see all of the activities going on daily! Have you been a puppy raiser before? How was your experience with Canine Companions? We’d love to hear from you!


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Amanda Henry
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Amanda Henry is a real estate agent with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, photographer, web designer, mom, and freelance blogger living the luxury and active lifestyle in San Diego.