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Program Director as Puppy Raiser of Service Dogs

By Jody Record, Campus Journal Editor
July 9, 2008

Yaeger as a puppy-in-training for the non-profit group Canine Companions for Independence.

Kathy Mandsager doesn’t know if Yaeger is going to make it.

In all the years she’s been a puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a California-based company that provides assistance dogs to people with disabilities, she’s only had two who didn’t last until graduation and one of those got dropped because of a physical condition. At 8 ½ months, Yaeger is showing signs—little things that someone else might not even pick up on--that he might not have what it takes to be a service dog.

But she’s not giving up. She never has. The black lab is the eighth dog she has raised for CCI. Besides, Yaeger could pull through; she’ll have him for another nine months so there’s a chance he’ll settle down.

Program director for UNH’s Coastal Response Research Center, Mandsager takes Yaeger with her wherever she goes. To work, to the grocery store, on a train ride to Portland. In New Hampshire, puppies in training are allowed anywhere that service dogs can go.

Kathy Mandsager and Yaeger, outside her office in Gregg Hall. Mandsager is a puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence, a company that provides service dogs to people with disabilities.

“Walking across campus is great because you’ve got kids behind you on skateboards; cell phones ringing; kids come up and swarm him. I get to see how he’ll respond to commands with all the distractions,” she says.

CCI breeds all of its own dogs. At eight weeks, the puppies are flown to one of four regional CCI offices around the country where the volunteer puppy raisers pick them up. The volunteers keep the dogs for 18 months. After that they go back to their regional office for another six months of training before being placed.

The puppy raiser’s job is to socialize the dogs—always black labs, golden retrievers or a mix of the two—and teach them roughly 32 basic commands. They learn specific tasks—opening a door with their mouths, pulling off socks, carrying things—during their end training at the CCI centers.

Yaeger curls up in a corner of Mandsager's Gregg Hall office.

“Only 40 percent of the dogs CCI breeds make it to graduation so you can see the high standards they set,” Mandsager says, adding that a dog can be released for any reason. “They might be too timid or too hyper or too food-driven. When they leave me, it’s like a kid going off to college. They might party too much.”

Some volunteers have raised four and five puppies and never seen one graduate. The puppy raisers are given first choice of taking their dog back but that’s never been a consideration for Mandsager.

“I think it’s a mind game for me,” she says. “If all the time I was training I had it in the back of my mind that he might stay, I might change what I do.”

Mandsager doesn’t remember exactly when she got involved with CCI. It was sometime after her son, Thad, got his first service dog about 15 years ago. They had waited about four years; there is a continual waiting list to get a service dog. (All of CCI’s dogs are free.)

“Daily I could see the benefits of the dog for my son and I thought ‘I can give back; I can train dogs,’” Mandsager says.

And now, with Thad working full-time and living independently, she can see how having a service dog increases one’s confidence and comfort level.

“There’s a feeling they get. Like, I can be home alone because I have this dog,” she says.

Graduations are held four times a year and Mandsager drives to New York for at least one of them, even if her dog is still in training. It’s the big payoff, she says, watching the dogs walk across the stage to get their diplomas.

“It’s a proud moment,” she says. “And when a dog gets turned over, you walk across the stage and hand over the leash—it’s very emotional.”

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