Editor’s note: This is the first in a series about Mikaela Zufelt’s experience training an assistance dog. It was published Dec. 30, 2010. The second story was published April 8, 2011.
Thirteen-week-old Neffa poses enthusiastically for photos as he sits, then lies down and curiously sniffs the camera. When shown a treat, his nose eagerly tracks its path until he is allowed to eat it. Neffa is every inch the playful, adorable black Lab puppy.
He’s been good, listening to all the commands.
“Good sit, Neffa. Good stay. Good boy,” 15-year-old Mikaela Zufelt praises, as Neffa stays calm.
What he doesn’t do is lose control. Neffa is a Canine Companions for Independence puppy, and he has a job to do.
Mikaela is a volunteer puppy raiser for CCI. Her task is to take care of Neffa for the first year and a half of his life, teach him 30 commands, socialize him to as many people and situations as possible and prepare him for the advanced training required to become a skilled assistance dog.
“Good job. Release,” she tells Neffa , letting him rest. Mikaela’s mom, Karey Zufelt, rewards him with a treat.
“I have treats in my pants pockets, pajama pockets … they’re everywhere,” Karey laughs.
Santa Rosa-based CCI is the largest nonprofit provider of assistance dogs. CCI dogs can be service dogs, helping people in wheelchairs; facility dogs, for places such as hospitals; skilled companions, for people with disabilities with a caretaker to work the dog; or hearing dogs, for the hearing-impaired.
Neffa is the second puppy Mikaela’s raised for CCI. She received Neffa was he was 8 weeks old, in November.
She raised her first CCI puppy, Deckle, a yellow Lab, when she was 13 years old. Deckle was able to “graduate” training and become an official CCI assistance dog for Pat, a boy with autism.
“It’s rare that a teenage girl gets her first puppy to pass, so Deckle was really special,” Karey said.
Dogs can get released simply for behavior that’s incompatible with a wheelchair.
“If they get a little distracted by squirrels, it puts a person in a wheelchair in a bad position, whereas a normal dog owner would have no problem with it,” Karey said.
Mikaela’s interest in training puppies began in elementary school, when she had a teacher who brought puppies to school to socialize.
“She saw that, and it sparked an interest in her,” Karey said.
In fall 2008, Mikaela had her bat mitzvah and wanted to do community service, so she applied to be a puppy raiser.
The application was a long process. First, she went on the website and filled out an online application. CCI called and set up a phone interview, and then set up a house interview to make sure the environment was appropriate for puppy raising. Then Mikaela specified what type of dog she wanted and when she wanted to receive him.
“It’s a pretty intense process,” Mikaela summed up.
When she finally got Deckle, Mikaela did all of the training mechanics.
Karey helped with Deckle’s socialization, “but the actual training was all Mikaela,” she said. “Deckle passed because of Mikaela.”
For Mikaela, that’s the best part of being a puppy raiser.
“I love the actual training. My favorite part is when it clicks with them, when you know they get it,” she said. “There are always different situations you can take advantage of. It’s fun making new games to teach them.”
There’s also the benefit of being able to observe the enormous impact that the dogs have on others’ lives.
“I like going to graduation. It’s really rewarding and meaningful,” Mikaela said. “These dogs open a door to help these people reach out. If they have a dog, they can make friends. They become the cool kid instead of the kid that’s different.”
“They send you a DVD of (graduation). It’s beyond amazing to see those dogs. It’s a wonderful day. We have a lunch to meet the receiver. With Deckle, Mikaela made a scrapbook to give to Pat and his mom,” Karey said.
A second puppy
The experience of raising Deckle was so rewarding that Mikaela and Karey knew they had to do it again.
“So we got Neffa, who’s a black male Lab,” Mikaela said.
Neffa, a Labrador retriever and golden retriever cross, is one of 13 in his litter. His parents are Gaylor, a Labrador and golden cross, and Essex — who was in training with Deckle — a full Labrador.
Neffa arrived as all CCI puppies do: socialized, but with zero training.
The breeder caretakers raise, wean and feed the puppies and play noises to desensitize them. They also get the puppies used to walking on different types of surfaces, such as grates, Mikaela said. The breeder caretakers also name the puppies. All of the dogs in a litter get names starting with the same letter. For example, Neffa ‘s brother’s name is Neptune.
When the puppies are 8 weeks old, the breeders bring them to Santa Rosa, where they get medical care and ear tattoos. The puppy raisers pick them up and begin the long task of training them.
Neffa first learned sit.
“You teach them the behavior before the word. You put a treat up to his nose and pull up. The second he sits down, you reward him with the treat. Then you begin saying, ‘Good sit,’ so they start to link the words to the action. Eventually, after a lot of repetition, he masters it,” Mikaela said.
Neffa can usually learn a command after several 10-minute sessions.
“Puppies have short attention spans. You want to get it to the point where he’s learning the behavior really well, and then end on a positive note,” Mikaela said. “Once he really gets it, you keep repeating it.
“He’s done very well. He is a really smart dog.”
Learning the lingo
“All dogs are different. Some dogs, it takes a week of training. Others, it takes one 10-minute session for them to completely master a command,” Mikaela added.
For a service dog, knowing a command means they have the ability to do it anywhere in any situation. It’s crucial that Neffa knows to obey a command even when exposed to distractions, or if the command is spoken softly or unclearly.
In addition, CCI puppies must learn the commands tailored for wheelchairs. For example, when they sit, they have to lean on a hip to avoid being run over by the chair.
So far, Neffa knows “sit,” “down,” “let’s go,” “wait,” “here” and “hurry.” He goes to class once a week at Cal Expo, with a trainer who gives puppy raisers a timeframe for learning all his commands.
“Some of the commands build on one another, so it has to be timed really well,” Mikaela said.
There are four levels of classes that CCI dogs go through. After the first three, they go to Big Dogs, where they encounter novel situations such as the bus station, airport and other outings.
Then the puppies go to CCI headquarters for more advanced training, where they learn 10 more commands. Then they get matched and bond with their new owners.
When it’s time to match people with trained dogs, “they basically pick each other,” Karey said.
The dogs are free, and the receivers get lifetime support and care from CCI. The dogs work for eight to 10 years. When the dog retires, the receiver gets a successor dog.
Retired dogs are kept by the receiver, a family member or the original puppy raisers, Karey said.
“People that get released dogs are asked for a $500 donation. These dogs are highly trained, so if you do get a former working dog, they are fantastic,” she said.
A supportive city
Living in Davis is an advantage for socialization, according to Karey.
“Davis is really good for puppy training. We’ve never been turned down when we introduce ourselves as puppy raisers,” Karey said.
Mikaela has another helper in addition to Karey, though: Bumper, their 8-year-old yellow Lab. Bumper is Mikaela’s second dog. They had another pet Labrador, Travis, but he died a few years ago.
“Bumper has been so generous. He’s a great teacher,” Karey said.
Bumper is a retriever dog, bred for bird retrieving — much different from how CCI puppies are bred.
“It’s so interesting, seeing the difference between them,” Karey said. “He’s so great though. Puppies pull on him, he’ll engage them in play. He’ll grab a toy and spin around, getting them to play. It’s very cute.”
Mikaela’s friends love that she raises puppies, as well.
“With Deckle, I brought him to school, and everyone loved him,” Mikaela said. “My friends are always excited. They’re very supportive of it.”
Some people, however, have a misconception of what CCI puppies do.
“When we’re outside, people come up to me and say, ‘Oh poor dog, you just want to be a normal dog, don’t you?’ But at home, we pet him, we play with him. He is a normal dog. The only thing he’s not allowed to do is go to dog parks,” Mikaela said.
At his home, it’s clear that Neffa has a lot of fun. He’s allowed to play with Bumper, under supervision. He also has a favorite toy: a stuffed squeaker.
After the photo shoot, Neffa stretches out in his pen, sleepy, peaceful and quiet.
“He’s so much fun, but when he relaxes and calms down, it’s so nice,” Mikaela said.
— The Enterprise will check in periodically on Neffa’s training.