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[caption id="attachment_28783" align="alignleft" width="122" caption="Angie Schacht"][/caption]

Imagine the beginning of a normal workday.  You come into your office building, sit down at your desk, maybe bend down to pick up the keys you just dropped.

Now imagine doing this from a wheelchair.

Most people can’t imagine what that would be like.  Let’s just think about getting into the building.  If it has an automatic door that operates via a push plate, how long does it stay open?  Long enough for a person with a disability to get through?  How heavy is your front door?  Is there a slant at the door?  If so, how steep is it?  Would you have to lock your wheelchair brakes so that you wouldn’t slide backwards as you opened the door?

Now let’s think about picking up keys from the wheelchair.  If you have torso strength, you could bend to the side or front to pick them up.  If not, how would you get them?  Two feet can seem like a long way.

I work for an organization called Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) in Santa Rosa.  We breed and train dogs for people with disabilities other than blindness. These dogs are Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers or a cross between the two. In 2010, CCI graduated 231 teams nationwide, 63 of them from the Santa Rosa campus.

After being born and raised in volunteer homes, at approximately a year-and-a-half, the dogs return to one of CCI’s five professional training centers around the country. This is where I come in. I am one of 10 trainers at the Northwest Regional Center in Santa Rosa. I work with dogs for the next six to nine months, training and perfecting the 40 commands they will need to know in order to be paired with one of our clients.

The other trainers and I do a lot of the training on our campus, but at least once a week we take the dogs into the community on field trips.  Here, the dogs experience a variety of environmental elements, such as smells, sounds and settings.

This is where you come in. We would love the opportunity to take our dogs into an office, hospital or rehabilitation setting, since many of our clients will spend at least some time in these types of situations.  The more different stimuli the dogs experience, the more practice they get in the “real world,” the better prepared they are to become the amazing assistance dogs that are of such great service to people.

One of the most impressive things about being around a fully trained assistance dog is that you don’t even know s/he is there. Our clients often remark on the exclamations of surprise they hear from people around them when the dog gets out from under the table at a restaurant when they are ready to leave. Beyond the commands themselves, the dogs have to know how to be around people in a variety of settings, without seeking attention.

On a typical field trip, these are a few things to expect:

We work one dog per trainer per session (often three trainers per trip).

We are at a field trip location for about three hours.

It is helpful if there are stairs, elevators, escalators, etc. to practice on.

If possible, trainers like to use counters for “transaction” practice (for example, giving a clerk a credit card or a receptionist an insurance card).

It’s good for the dogs to have various distractions to work through, such as ringing phones, fax machines, overhead announcements, etc.

Let’s go back to our initial scenario, this time with a fully trained assistance dog. You roll up to the front of your building. Your dog either opens the automatic door for you or tugs the front door open with a strap, holding it until you have entered. When you drop your keys, your dog quickly picks them up and delivers them to you. These are some of the skills that CCI trains assistance dogs to perform.

By inviting us into your place of work during this crucial training period, you are directly impacting the success of our assistance dogs, in turn enhancing the life of a person with a disability.

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Angie Schacht is an instructor for Canine Companions for Independence. After graduating from a small liberal arts college in Iowa, she moved to California to start her career as an assistance dog trainer. She started at CCI as an instructor assistant seven years ago and has since worked her way up to instructor. If you are interested in finding out more about hosting a CCI field trip, or if you would like a CCI assistance dog demonstration at your workplace, please contact Chuck Dickinson, training manager, at 707-577-1741 or cdickinson@cci.org.