Knowing firsthand the joy and help an assistance dog can provide, a disabled Massapequa resident and his family are currently raising a puppy for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a national nonprofit organization that specializes in the training of assistance dogs for children and adults with disabilities.
This past June, 66-year-old Stuart Altman met Verity: a 12-pound yellow Labrador retriever puppy who may one day provide a lifetime of companionship and service to an individual in need. The Altman family was selected to raise and train Verity to obey specific commands in preparation for advanced training to become a certified assistance dog.
Verity, now 5 months old and more than 35 pounds, is the fourth dog to be welcomed into the Altman family home through CCI.
“It’s been such an unbelievable experience,” said Lorrie Altman, Stuart’s wife of 45 years. “I don’t know where we would’ve been without [the dogs]. I could never imagine life without one now, because it’s been such a constant part of our lives.”
In 1978, Stuart was diagnosed with Late Onset Tay-Sachs, a progressive neurological genetic disorder characterized by muscle weakness, speech difficulty and loss of motor skills. He resides with wife Lorrie, longtime caretaker and friend Richard Herb and a six-year-old golden retriever-black lab mix Chipper, a skilled companion and CCI graduate.
Stuart was matched with his first assistance dog, Civi, through CCI in 1993 and has been involved with the program ever since. Now, the family has decided that it’s time to give back.
“Being a graduate family, they have seen the other end of it,” said CCI Puppy Program Manager Deb Knatz. “The puppy raisers are raising a dog for someone else, and they have been that ‘somebody else’ that got a graduate dog. Now they’re giving back what somebody did for them.”
For Lorrie, the time and energy is takes to train a puppy to learn tasks such as opening doors, pulling laundry baskets and turning on lights, is well worth it.
“What you do for these dogs is nothing compared to what they do for other people,” said Lorrie. “I want someone else to have the love that these dogs give; the unconditional love. They always love you, not just when you feed them, not just when you play with them; they love you for just being there.”
Over the past 25 years, Stuart and his family have lived with three different CCI dogs, performed a number of assistance dog demonstrations, annually attended training graduation ceremonies and volunteered with the organization in various capacities. When they decided to take the next step to become puppy raisers, they went through an application process, phone interview and orientation before being placed on a waiting list. Currently, the family is adhering to a daily training regimen in order to prepare Verity for her potential future as an assistance dog or CCI breeder.
“We can’t raise puppies in a kennel and expect them to graduate. They need to live with families and be involved in all of the things that a normal puppy sees; all of the housebreaking, obedience commands, house manners,” said Knatz. “And beyond what a regular puppy would do, they need to be out and socialized in public. [The puppy raisers] are the ones who get the dog used to going everywhere with their person. If it weren’t for the people who raise these puppies, we would never be able to have these dogs at all.”
According to Lorrie, Verity is a sweet, energetic and rambunctious puppy who has already mastered many of her commands.
“I’ve never raised a puppy in my whole life,” said Lorrie. “And the best part about training Verity is that she’s learning. It’s very rewarding, working on things and then seeing her do it. She’s crazy, but we love her just the way she is. She’ll be very good for somebody someday.”
Though Stuart’s physical ability may be limited by his disease, he doesn’t let his motorized wheelchair and speech impediment hinder his assistance in training Verity and bonding with Chipper, his skilled companion of four years.
“The dog doesn’t always understand him, so he gives the command and we repeat it, so the dog knows what to do,” said Lorrie. “Stuart has grown very attached to [Verity]. And she loves him. When we open the gate, she goes straight to him. She knows he hides food in his wheelchair, she learned that very quickly.”
The family notes that though sending Verity off to advanced training and a lifelong career as a dog will be difficult, they understand that it is necessary in order to ensure her successful contribution to the life of somebody in need.
“I call it ‘graduating to college,’” Lorrie joked. “I raised my children, they went off to college, and now I raise my puppy and then she’s off to college, which is her advanced training. And then you know what? We’ll just get another puppy.”