Brattleboro woman raises service dogs to help differently abled


BRATTLEBORO — A local woman raised a dog for 18 months, but little did she know that this animal would be given to a young man who's mother died in a car accident

Linda Lyon and Everett Wilson of Brattleboro raised the black lab, Zuko, for more than a year through Canine Companions for Independence, which provides highly trained assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities, all done at no cost to the recipient. After Lyon had raised and properly trained Zuko, he was passed over to 12-year-old Jared Behr, of New York, who has cerebral palsy, making him unable to speak or walk and requiring constant care from his adopted grandparents.

"It's very rewarding, it makes me a very grateful for being an abled body person. It amazes me these dogs can do so much for someone," said Lyon. "People ask, 'How can you give the dog up?' Yes that's hard, but that pain is outweighed by the difference that it potentially makes for someone with a disability."

Not only does this 2-year-old pup provide solace and comfort, he also turns light switches on and off, opens and closes doors, and retrieves dropped objects for Behr. This summer Zuko became a new addition to the family which includes Behr and his grandparents, June and John Behr, who adopted Behr after his mother Heidi Behr, a Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps member, died in an ambulance crash on May 3, 2005. Behr was 15 months old at the time of the crash, and his mother 23 years old.

It costs in excess of $50,000 to raise and train each dog, according to a press release from Canine Companions for Independence. Lyon said she pays for the dog's food and veterinary visits, but they are able to take this off their taxes. The organization breeds Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and crosses between the two. The dogs are weaned at about 8 weeks of age, then are flown to one of six regional headquarters across the country, where they are adopted by volunteer puppy raisers. The organization says the puppy raisers are the "backbones" to the group's efforts. The volunteers take the pups into their home, raising them, teaching them basic commands and socialization skills.

Ownership of the dog is retained by Canine Companions, and the dog must undergo yearly re-certification tests. All these are again provided at no cost and the organization has its own breeding program at its national headquarters in Santa Rosa, California. At the end of the two week Team Training there is a graduation ceremony that the Puppy Raisers are invited to. Up on stage, diplomas are handed out and the leashes are ceremoniously handed over from the Puppy Raiser to the new Graduate Team.

Zuko was actually one of 10 dogs Lyon has puppy raised over the last 11 years and she is currently raising Gus and Kelso. Lyon notes that for each animal she has raised, the reaction between the recipient or recipient's guardian and the puppy raiser are very much the same.

"We hugged and cried," Lyon said, remembering the first recipient she met. "The bond is strong between the person who gets the dog and the person who raised the dog. I've never experienced anything like that with people I was meeting for the first time."

When the dogs reach about a year and a half old after being puppy raised, learning about 30 basic commands, they are returned to their regional headquarters (in this case, the Northeast region based in Medford, Long Island). They then begin six months of advanced training with nationally renowned instructors where they learn more than 40 commands that are useful to a person with disabilities. The instructors have a chance to give a detailed evaluation for each dog, and based on the dog's different strengths, a person with disabilities who is on the waiting list is invited to attend two weeks of Team Training at the regional headquarters, and be matched with an assistance dog.

However, not any dog can be used for this program, and the organization has "exceedingly high standards." About four out of 10 dogs make it through this program, so the ones that graduate really are the "cream of the crop," according to the organization's press release. Right now there is about a year and a half wait to be invited to Team Training.

"The more puppies that are being raised, the more people we can serve," stated the press release.

Jared and Zuko are settling into a routine back home in New York and Jared's grandmother says, "Zuko is a very special dog and we hope to have many wonderful years with him. We can't thank Everett and Linda enough."

Zuko will curl up next to Behr and when the boy begins to have a seizure, Zuko will stay nearby, comforting and watching over him.

Lyon became a puppy trainer because she is both an animal lover and someone searching to support a good cause. She also saw the benefit of raising a dog, not just from home, but also at work. When Lyon began on this journey over a decade ago, she was living near Washington D.C. where she felt the dogs could be socialized well because it is a diverse area from the way people look, talk, dress, walk and so on.

In the Brattleboro area, Lyon will take the dogs with her to church, the grocery story or even the library, maybe not for a good read, but for a ride in the elevator. Lyon has also visited the Inclusion Center, an activity center for and by all people with disabilities and interested community members. Lyon notes this gives the dogs an advantage having been exposed to people with special needs, a demographic they are likely to be serving in another household. Lyon also brings these dogs out to local concerts, which she says is a positive experience.

"I find with every dog, the ideal situation is to have them so well behaved, people don't even know they're there; they should be in a down stay," Lyon said. "That's what we strive for. The first time a dog hears people applauding, it stands up and looks around, which highlights the importance of socializing dogs in wide variety."

Canine Companions for Independence also has several other types of assistance dog placements, including facility dogs. There are hospitals and rehabilitation centers that use the dogs as a "motivational tool." Some of the dogs have been placed in the criminal justice system, giving comfort to children who are victims of sexual abuse and other violent crimes as they give testimony against their tormentors, according to the press release. The organization also has a very active Wounded Veterans program that places the assistance dogs with disabled veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the young men that was recently placed with an assistance dog was an active duty Marine who is a quadruple amputee after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan.

Lyon encourages people who think they may be eligible for a service dog, to get one. She also hopes more people will become puppy raisers and says it is an "amazing experience."

"You build friendships in ways I would never imagine, even nationally. People have a common bond when they're involved with the dogs in this way," Lyon said.

Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275


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