Karen Nathanson, her son Josh Milenbach and her fiancé recently celebrated the arrival of nine healthy puppies.
All puppies are greeted with joy, but this litter born in mid-August is special. The puppies are the family’s third litter for the nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence, which trains companion and service dogs for people with disabilities such as autism or deafness.
Nathanson and a fellow volunteer for CCI served as midwives for the births, which were spread over five hours.
Nathanson and Milenbach happened upon CCI in 2010 in their rabbi’s office at Congregation Bet Haverim, while Milenbach was in the midst of deciding his bar mitzvah project. They ran into a family friend who was a volunteer for CCI, and Milenbach was drawn to the idea of caring for dogs while also helping others.
“I like the fact that we are taking care of potential service dogs,” Milenbach said. “It really hits me hard, and it’s very meaningful to me to know that I can possibly help.”
Nathanson is a physical therapist, and saw raising a service dog as an opportunity to “instill in (Josh) the importance of helping other people.”
“I’m always surrounded by people with disabilities, so I wanted to teach Josh the importance of not being afraid to approach someone with a disability,” Nathanson said. “And having a service dog helps them physically, but also it opens up their social circle and helps draw people closer to them.”
The family applied to raise a puppy, and after an extensive application process, which included both a phone and home interview, they received Dede in May 2010, when she was just 8 weeks old.
After a year and half of basic behavioral training, with Milenbach taking Dede to school and attending weekly classes on how to raise a puppy, the family took Dede to Santa Rosa, CCI’s headquarters, where she underwent a further six months of advanced training. While there, Dede, who is a yellow Labrador with some golden retriever blood, was selected not as a service dog, but as a breeder.
“To be selected as a breeder is actually an honor, because she has the temperament and learning ability, and the genetics to carry on really good qualities,” Nathanson said.
Each CCI breeder dog aims for a total of five litters; this is Dede’s third. Every six months, at the peak of her heat cycle, the family drives Dede to Santa Rosa for breeding, then again four weeks later for an ultrasound.
After the births, which took place in a refurbished room in the Nathanson house, the family takes care of the puppies for eight weeks, moving them into the also-refurbished garage filled with playthings. The pups begin to be weaned at about 4 weeks old and are fed puppy chow.
“Being a breeder-caretaker is a tremendous amount of work, and we just got some of our sleep back, but we’re recruiting a lot of help from friends to help support us,” Nathanson said.
After eight weeks, the family takes a commemorative photograph, then drives the puppies to Santa Rosa for a medical checkup and ear tattoo. Thereafter, the puppies are sent all over the country to puppy-raising families.
“We say goodbye,” Nathanson said. “And yes, it’s hard, we’re very attached to them, but we know that they’re going to go on to wonderful things.”
The families keep in touch via Yahoo groups and social media, exchanging stories and pictures. Dede’s puppies now live as far away as North Carolina and Washington, though she frequently visits one of her daughters in Auburn, who also happens to live with the same family as Dede’s mother, a retired breeder. The breeder caretaker family is able to keep the dog after she retires, and keep in touch with their descendants in the program and elsewhere.
“This whole experience has broadened our social circle, broadened our connection to people all over the country, with all of us working together to raise these dogs and help people,” Nathanson said. “And it all started with this bar mitzvah project.”
The frequent driving and around-the-clock care for the puppies in their first days may not be for everyone, but the work belies the tremendous impact these dogs have.
“Seven puppies times five litters is 35,” Milenbach said. “Potentially 35 people will have a companion for the rest of their lives, and it’s just nice to know that I can help someone who needs it.”