* Editor’s note: This is the last in a series about Davis resident Mikaela Zufelt’s experience training an assistance dog. Earlier stories describing Neffa’s training were published in December and April.
On May 18, Neffa went off to college.
Neffa’s experience won’t involve dorms, midterm exams and football games. Instead, the Canine Companions for Independence dog-in-training left his Davis foster home for advanced training, called “college,” at CCI headquarters in preparation for his future as an assistance dog.
The milestone completed a large part of the training journey for Neffa, a black Labrador who is now 18 months old and weighs 76 pounds.
“It’s bittersweet … but mostly sweet,” said his puppy raiser, Mikaela Zufelt, a senior at Davis High School. Mikaela raised and trained Neffa since he was 8 weeks old.
“Because I’ve seen the positive effect Deckle (the first puppy Mikaela raised for CCI) has had, Neffa will be easier, but we’re going to miss him so much,” Mikaela said before sending Neffa off to “college.”
“You do it for the next step,” said Karey Zufelt, Mikaela’s mother. “That’s the hard part, but if you go to graduation, you’d change your opinion.
“A lot of people could be puppy raisers. It takes a large amount of time and commitment, but the rewards are greater than you could ever imagine. Everyone’s lives change.”
Added Mikaela, “It’s going to be tough, but exciting.”
The graduation ceremony took place in Santa Rosa, where CCI headquarters are located.
“All the dogs being turned in (to headquarters) walk across the stage and get medals, which represents moving on to the next phase of training,” Karey said.
Neffa went back to CCI headquarters knowing a vast catalog of commands, including “sit,” “let’s go,” “wait,” “hurry,” “heel,” “under,” “shake” and “stay.”
“He’s been in a lot of different places: barns, horse shows, hospitals, malls, stores, parks, elevators, elderly facilities, the library, doctor’s appointments, the dentist, kindergarten classes, the airport, band concerts, the Farmers Market,” Karey said.
Much of Neffa’s latter training involved solidifying commands he already knew so he could stay focused on his handler and perform well in difficult situations.
“We try to take him to places where there’s lots of people,” Mikaela said. “When there’s noise, energy, distraction, everything gets more complex. We expect them to behave well.”
In comparison to his younger puppy days, “he handles distracting situations a lot better,” she added.
Picnic Day, farm animals, loud football games? No sweat. Neffa’s been there.
“Overall, he’s a really willing dog,” Mikaela said. “He wants to work, which is good for us to see. He’s a pretty mellow dog. He’s always had a good attitude. He makes us proud.”
Neffa also headed to Santa Rosa with a solid grasp on manners, an important asset for a future working dog.
“The house manners is a big thing,” Karey said. “Part of our job is to teach manners.”
Neffa was taught to never jump on furniture or counters, while the Zufelts’ pet Labrador, Bumper, could.
“It’s really good training,” Karey said. “These dogs are born and raised to be working dogs. This is what makes this type of dog happy.”
After being turned in to the headquarters, the dogs go to professional trainers for advanced training and learn additional commands for six to nine months.
At any point, the dogs may be released for a number of reasons. For example, a dog could be too distracted or fearful to be able to do the work required of them. A dog might have too strong a drive for prey or chase, or a low work ethic, or physical problems such as heart problems or skin problems.
Released dogs commonly go on to other forms of service, such as search and rescue or other types of therapy. In a reflection of the tough standards required by CCI, the high rate of release and the further service of these dogs, releasing is called a “change of career,” Karey said.
The dogs go through two semesters of professional training. They learn ambulatory skills, such as retrieving objects that are large, as well as those that are very small, such as coins. The dogs learn to place the object on the wheelchair user’s lap.
The trainers begin to adapt basic commands, learned from puppy raisers, to the needs of the person in the wheelchair.
For example, “dogs can perform tasks such as opening the fridge, getting a Gatorade, closing the fridge, and giving it to their receiver,” Mikaela said. “Precision is key.”
During advanced training, the dogs also are selected for various specializations. Dogs can become service, skilled companion or facility dogs, and training differs for some of these animals.
For example, hearing dogs — who work with the hearing-impaired — work on recognizing alerts, such as cell phone ring tones, email alerts, alarms and watches.
In the six to nine months during which the dogs receive additional training, the puppy raisers get monthly progress reports on the dog they raised. However, they are not allowed to see the dog.
Two weeks before final graduation, the receivers of the dogs go through a two-week training process. There is a day to find matches. They then work with the match, and learn how to care for their new assistance dog and how to live with the dog.
“They estimate $10,000 goes into each dog by the time they graduate,” Karey said.
However, the dogs are free of charge for the receiver, who also will have a lifetime of support from CCI. Anyone who wants a dog can apply, said Karey, who added: “An application is not a commitment.”
Six months after the dog has gone to its receiver, the puppy raisers are able to visit the dog they raised in its working home.
“With Deckle, I didn’t even really recognize him,” said Mikaela, who raised her first puppy when she was 13 years old. “He’d filled out and matured so much.”
Both Mikaela and Karey plan to continue being puppy raisers. Karey may train a puppy after Mikaela leaves for college, and Mikaela plans to train another puppy after she finishes college.
“We would like to encourage people to become puppy raisers,” Karey said. “You get to meet a lot of people you’d never think you’d meet.”
“There is a lot of support and there are a lot of people to help. There are so many ‘what if’s, but they can all be answered with the support system,” Mikaela said.
For more information on Canine Companions for Independence, visit www.cci.org.