Raising rover: Plano resident preps pups for disabled owners
Everywhere 15-month-old black lab/golden retriever mix Florette goes, she is the center of attention.
And Virginia deVilleneuve, who has taken care of the pup for most of its life, wouldn't have it any other way.
"She's with me 24/7, whether it be jury duty, doctor's appointments, dentists, grocery -- anything you can think of," deVilleneuve said. "She's been to restaurants, and it gets to be funny, because if for some reason I don't have her, and I have a certain restaurant I go to a lot, [they ask], 'Where's the dog?'"
DeVilleneuve has trained the dog since it was 8 weeks old on behalf of Canine Companions for Independence, an organization that trains therapy dogs to provide physical assistance to disabled and hearing-impaired adults and to be companions for sick or disabled children and adults.
As one of the organization's puppy raisers, deVilleneuve's job is to provide the basics -- obedience training, basic commands and socialization. Those basics will serve as the framework of a six-month, intensive training course at CCI's regional headquarters in Southern California. There, the dogs will learn to open doors, turn light switches on and off, retrieve household items and give money to cashiers on behalf of their disabled owners.
"Our goal is to enhance people's independence," said Katie Malatino, CCI spokeswoman, "so it may seem like a trivial thing for a typical capable person, but if you're not able to bend over and pick up something you've dropped, for instance, it can really help [you]."
Puppy raisers must expose the dogs to as wide of a variety of sights, sounds and smells as possible -- from everyday errands to train rides, restaurants and sporting events, deVilleneuve said.
"You have no idea where this dog's going to wind up," she said. "You have to expose them to everything that you can think of. You don't want them to be fearful of a train. If you're disabled and you have to go for a doctor's appointment and you need your dog to help you, the dog has to be exposed and know how to act in the doctor's office."
Florette is the fifth dog deVilleneuve, who started working with CCI in 2005, has trained through the program. Due to the rigorous nature of the training program, few canines leave as certified therapy dogs.
But the second dog raised by deVilleneuve, Fergie, was one of the lucky graduates. She currently lives with a child in Corpus Christi diagnosed with muscular dystrophy.
"He would never even go out of the house; his mom said he wouldn't interact," deVilleneuve said. "Other than school, which he had to do, he wouldn't do anything until he got Fergie. Now he's in scouts and sells popcorn and everything and goes out plays and Fergie's right there with him all the time. So they do amazing things, they truly do."
Some therapy dogs, including those trained by Canine Companions, visit hospitals and nursing homes to provide moral support to patients, something Schimelpfenig Library youth services employee Vera Miller is well-acquainted with.
"My son was in the hospital," she said. "He was hit by a car and he had traumatic brain injuries. He didn't respond until they sat a little dog on the table, and for the first time he reached out and started petting the dog."
DeVilleneuve describes puppy raisers in the area as a close-knit group and said any dedicated person wanting to volunteer can do so -- all it takes is signing up.
"We always are looking for additional puppy raisers," she said. "It's a volunteer thing ... but still, in all, it's probably the most rewarding thing. Raising kids is awesome, but being able to do this is very rewarding, and people who are thinking about maybe becoming a puppy raiser should know that it's well worth it."