WINTER GARDEN, Fla. — A Troy native has turned her love of dogs and helping others into a full-time hobby.
Robin Sanchez, of Winter Garden, Fla., is a volunteer “puppy raiser” for the non-profit organization, Canine Companions for Independence.
Founded in 1975, CCI provides assistance dogs to people with disabilities. This is done at no charge to the recipients, and with the help of volunteers across the country.
CCI has its national headquarters in Santa Rosa, Calif., as well as training centers in New York, Florida, Ohio, and Texas.
The organization breeds Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and crosses of the two breeds, in Santa Rosa, Calif. At eight weeks of age, puppies are then raised by volunteer caretakers who provide a home, socialization, love and attention to the dogs for a year and a half, while also teaching basic obedience skills.
Sanchez, who was born and raised in Troy, graduating from THS in 1976, first became aware of the CCI organization in the early ’90s, after moving to Florida.
“I worked at a store in Winter Park, Florida, where I met a woman who was a volunteer puppy-raiser for Canine Companions and I thought it was a really interesting organization,” she said. “When I retired from working in 2006, I called the regional center here in Orlando to ask how I could volunteer.”
Sanchez said her first volunteer opportunity was during a CCI “matriculation ceremony,” or graduation, during which the puppy raisers turn their dogs over to the organization’s professional trainers for further preparation.
“As you can imagine, (the ceremonies) are very emotional,” she said. “From that moment on, I was hooked.”
Sanchez continued to volunteer for CCI and in 2010 was asked to join the organization’s regional board. In 2016, Sanchez joined the national board. It was also during 2010 that she and her husband, Paul, raised their first puppy.
“It’s a great honor to have a puppy named for you,” she said. “That puppy’s name was Reardon, which is my maiden name, so my husband and I decided to raise him. Now, we are raising puppy number seven.”
CCI puppy raisers are 100 percent volunteer-based and are responsible for all costs associated with raising the dogs. Volunteers are initially given a CD that instructs them how to teach 30 different commands to the puppies, and they are also expected to attend a puppy class regularly.
“As a volunteer puppy raiser, I teach them about 30 commands, socialize them by taking them out in public, give them lots of love and encouragement, and teach them how to be good in the house,” Sanchez said. “At the end of the 18 months, the puppies are turned into the regional center that you live closest to and are evaluated by professional trainers. If those dogs are deemed to have what it takes to become a successful service dog, they go through an additional six to nine months of training.”
Sanchez noted that not all dogs “graduate,” or go on to become service dogs, and the success rate is about 55 percent.
“Fifty-five percent is actually pretty high,” she said. “Some of our dogs that are raised just don’t have the temperament. They may be very high energy, they may not have an interest in really working, and some of them, due to health issues, are released from our program because you wouldn’t want to give a dog that has a health issue to someone with a disability.”
Sanchez added that while some of the dogs don’t meet qualifications to become assistance dogs, many of them go on to work in a different capacity, including as airport dogs.
So far, two of Sanchez’s puppies have graduated, two have had health issues, and two did not have the temperament for the job. Her seventh puppy, Ashton, has about eight months left of “raising” before he will be evaluated by trainers.
Sanchez said that while the work comes with its share of challenges, the benefits greatly outweigh the downfalls.
“It’s a lot of time, but I just think it’s the most rewarding thing you could do,” she said. “Although saying goodbye to the puppy is hard because you’ve just spent 18 months raising them, you hope that they will go on to become a successful assistance dog and change somebody’s life.”
Those interested in becoming puppy raisers can visit cci.org for details about how to apply.
“The North Central Region of CCI, which Ohio is part of, is currently in the midst of a capital campaign to build a new training center in New Albany,” Sanchez said. “Currently, when they have team training, they hold them in a hotel because they do not have dorms or a place to hold classes, but they are building a state-of-the-art center for that, so that’s exciting.”
As of now, the North Central Training Center, which opened its doors in 1987, is located in Delaware, just outside of Columbus. It serves 13 1/2 states, which includes everything west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, along with Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
Reach the writer at 937-552-2205.