There’s a new set of pawprints in the Cappella-Velazquez household. Massapequa Park resident Romina Cappella-Velazquez and her family recently began raising an assistance dog in-training for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). The organization, which holds the annual DogFest Walk ‘n Roll, is a national nonprofit organization that provides assistance dogs for children and adults with disabilities. This year’s event took place on Oct. 3 at Marjorie Post Park in Massapequa and raised more than $52,000.
The adorable puppy in training is Saunder, a Labrador/Golden Retriever mix who will one day know more than 50 commands, and be matched with a person with disabilities.
“I actually saw another woman walking her dog in Pathmark and my aunt knew someone in Riverhead and we began talking about it,” said Cappella-Velazquez on her interest in being a puppy raiser. “What CCI does is wonderful and I wanted to be a part of it. I filled out an application and they called me. It was a rather quick process.”
“The puppy is great and he’s really such a good dog. The kids love him and they understand that although he is living with us, he will at some point go to a new home,” she said.
Cappella-Velazquez’s other dog, 9-year-old Stitch, is still adjusting to his temporary brother. Cappella-Velazquez said that CCI looks for people who have other dogs or animals because they want the dog to socialize as much as possible. It also helps to have a puppy raiser who understands dogs and has some experience with them.
Volunteer puppy raisers are critically important to the work of CCI. Puppy raisers take the pups into their home at eight weeks of age (Saunder is now 12 weeks old), raising them, teaching them basic commands and socialization skills. The socialization is perhaps the most important, as the dogs need to be exposed to any and all types of surroundings.
“I play with him and take him to puppy training classes twice a month at CCI’s Long Island headquarters out in Medford. I’m pretty free to do what I want to give him exposure and they encourage you to go on the train and fly with him so there isn’t a fear factor,” said Cappella-Velazquez on her required training with Saunder. “We teach them certain behaviors—he already knows commands—and just love him like any other animals you would welcome into your home.”
Finances also factor into consideration when signing up to be a puppy raiser. Cappella-Velazquez said that Saunder has to keep to a feeding schedule and can only eat one type of food. She covers the cost of the food and Saunder’s vet bills, but added that CCI offers some assistance as well.
“They have a partnership with Henry Schein Animal Health, a provider of animal health products to veterinarians, and he gives puppy raisers a care package with heartworm and flea and tick medication,” she said of offsetting the cost of caring for Saunder.
As for the breed, CCI tends to use Labradors and Golden Retrievers as well as a mix of the two breeds, as they have found that mix to be best in terms of temperament and ability to transition. CCI also names and places each dog with puppy raisers and families.
With their special yellow capes, the dogs are permitted to go to many public areas that family pets aren’t allowed. When the dogs reach about a year and a half-old, they are returned to CCI’s regional headquarters in New York, where they begin six months of advanced training with the organizations nationally renowned instructors. If they pass their tests, the dogs will then be matched with a child or adult with disabilities.
On realizing that the day would come when Saunder has to leave, Cappella-Velazquez said the difficulty of giving him up was softened when she was at the facility.
“There was a mother who has an autistic son and she was actually a foster parent. She turned to me and said, ‘I want to thank people like you because the dog has made a tremendous difference in my son’s life,’” said Cappella-Velazquez. “She was so grateful to CCI because of the dog, so for me, that makes it all worth it.”
Saunder is expected to be turned back in to CCI in February 2017. Naturally families get attached to their furry house guests, but after the dogs are placed, it is up to the new family whether or not they want to remain in contact with the puppy raiser.
“It will be a bittersweet moment, but I’m doing it for a good reason,” said Cappella-Velazquez on the day when she has to return Saunder. “I’ve only just started, but I think that I would be a puppy raiser again.”
CCI is currently looking for puppy raisers for their new batch of delightful doggies. The organization expects to welcome an estimated 44 puppies in mid-December. For more information about becoming a puppy raiser, visit www.cci.org or call 1-800-572-2275.