Saturday, April 16, 2011

Veronique: More Than a A Service Dog for the Disabled

Veronique
It’s just a little over two years since I brought home Veronique, my service dog. She’s officially known as a Canine Companions for Independence [CCI] service dog, specifically trained for people with disabilities. 

Veronique is a Labrador-Golden Retriever mix, and I was told she was the smartest pooch in the class. Well, I bet the CCI trainers say that about all the dogs.

Veronique goes just about everywhere with me, including work, functions and family events. I take her to my IBM office in Armonk, New York, during the week, where she refrains from playing catch with the executives. My wife Maggie and I have taken her to meet New York City Mayor Bloomberg, at his official residence in Manhattan; she has met Senator Harkin of Iowa, in Washington, D.C. and has attended the U.S. Tennis Open in Queens, New York, on two occassions.

Veronique has changed my life in ways I never imagined. Initially I didn’t want a service dog, I didn’t think I needed one. Today, I can’t imagine my life without her. Besides the incredible basic things she does, like picking up objects from the floor, as small as a dime, or opening and closing doors, she has given me more confidence to function as I go about my day. I am a better driver because of her. I began to relax more when she rode in the car with me. And, when I am alone, which I insist on and treasure, my family takes some comfort in knowing that I really am not alone, as Veronique will look out for me.

I can go on, but I would rather share a speech I gave on February 21, 2009, as one of three CCI graduating class presidents. The speech says it all regarding how my classmates and I felt as we formally received our service dogs and companions for life.
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Thank you Lauren for that fine introduction.  Good afternoon CCI graduates and staff, Puppy Raisers, family, friends, ladies and gentlemen.  We appreciate your attendance here today.

I also want to give special thanks to all the puppy raisers and trainers.  These highly-skilled dogs have brought us together for this memorable occasion and this day would not be possible without your help and hard work.

Last year, Jessica invited my wife Maggie and I to our first CCI graduation.  As many of you know, these graduations can be emotional and intimidating events, especially with more than 50 four-legged friends in the room. 

We were astounded at how quiet the dogs were, as they are now.  At the time, I didn’t hear one dog bark during the entire graduation ceremony.  However, back then, I didn’t know what the command S- P- E- A- K could do.

As a member of this year’s graduating class, I now know more than 40 commands.  Honestly, I’m tempted to use S- P- E- A- K just to break the silence in the room.  But I won’t.

My class consists of eight families, representing four states.  Prior to our arrival at the Miller Family Campus, the only thing we had in common was the belief that these dogs could help improve our lives.

Unlike my classmates, who came to the center of their own free-will, I was kidnapped by my wife and two children, Danielle and Jimmy, and brought to the Center in the middle of the night.  I say that jokingly because after being paralyzed for 28 years, I didn’t think a CCI service dog could help me. Well, I was wrong. 
                                               
After two weeks of intense boot-camp training, I learned many things, not only from our highly-skilled trainers and canine companions, but also from the families who went through training with me.

I saw Sasha, my 14-year-old colleague, begin a transformation into manhood as he took on the responsibility of caring and working with his dog Piute.  His mother Betsy, watched with pride as Sasha insisted on becoming a pack leader.

I watched Danny, a 13-year-old boy with Autism, work with his father Brian, to become a skilled companion team with their dog Breen.  I learned that Danny had no close friends, no sleepovers, and no one to play with.  His father told me that Danny wants to play but he doesn’t know how. 

Within one week of associating with Breen, Danny was walking with a new sense of pride, playing and actually laughing out loud – something Danny never did before.  Our whole class watched as Danny created a special connection with Breen, which we know will be life-changing for their family.

I saw determination in Heather as she battled with her crutches and wheelchair while going through team training with her husband Eric.  With a strong voice and a firm hand, she and her dog Zypher worked through numerous drills to master commands and techniques that will help her become more independent at home and at work.

In Jennifer, a delightful 20-year-old woman with Cerebral Palsy, I saw confidence as she worked with her parents Mark and Jane, her assistant Tiffany, and her dog Vintara.  In effect Vintara was responding to four different handlers and performing brilliantly.  Using her wheelchair and fighting fatigue, Jenn’s personality became more vibrant as she bonded with Vintara.  She and her family inspired the class as they went through various lessons and public demonstrations of her newly acquired skills. Vintara proved to be the perfect match for Jennifer and her family.

In Leslie, I saw courage as she went through the paces with her dog Wheeler.  With her husband Warren by her side, she fought back the fatigue brought on by MS and insisted on putting in eight-hour days of training to master her handling skills. 

Yesterday, I saw Leslie slip out of her motorized scooter seat to the floor.  Team members quickly inquired if she needed help.  She waved them away and called to Wheeler.  She gave the “Stand” command and Wheeler stood in front of her, steadily, as Leslie put her hands on his shoulders and hips, carefully balancing herself on his back.  She was then able to sit in the scooter seat by herself.  This incident exemplifies what CCI is all about.

Ken and Mary are also graduating today with their dogs Packard and Wenda, respectively. I too am graduating with my dog Veronique.  I am compelled to say that my family was right, I do see great benefits in having a dog like Veronique assist me in my day-to-day activities.

On behalf of the graduating class of 2009, I would like to extend our sincere thanks and appreciation to all of you, for everything you have done to enrich our lives with these wonderful dogs and this innovative program.   This day would not be possible if it were not for the puppy raisers, trainers and staff of the CCI organization and all of you. Thank you and have a great afternoon.
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