Local family helps with service dogs

LYNDEBOROUGH – Kara Steere was at a University of New Hampshire hockey game years ago when she noticed a man in a wheelchair with a service dog. She wondered if the disabled man would have been able to go to the game if he didn’t have the dog.

“I wasn’t watching the game,” she said, “I was watching the man and his dog.”

When she got home she Googled and found Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit that breeds and trains service dogs and decided she wanted to be a volunteer puppy raiser.

The next step was having her husband buy in. Andrew Steere said he didn’t like dogs.

“We’re not getting a dog,” she told him. “It’s only for one year – to try it out.”

The puppy’s name was O’Hare, and before he was in the car, he had Andrew “wrapped around his finger,” she said.

So far, the Steeres have raised six Canine Companions puppies, with a long break in 2000 to have two children.

The whole family, including Avery, 11, and Kellen, 9, were in Lyndeborough’s J.A. Tarbell Library Monday evening to explain the Canine Companions program to a small audience and show their two dogs, Lupe and Bernard.

Bernard is actually their pet now. Canine Companions decided he needed “a change of career” because the quiet, gentle dog was found to be too nervous for supermarkets and other noisy situations.

Lupe is another story. The Steere’s first female puppy seems to like the training.

“They either want to be a service dog or not,” Kara said. “She knows what the vest means.”

Wearing a vest that identifies her as a puppy in training, Lupe is restrained, as she was Monday night.

Without the vest, Kara said, she would act like a typical friendly dog, sniffing everything and approaching people for attention.

People always want to know how they can bear giving up the young dogs when it’s time for them to leave for professional training. Kara said it’s sad but rewarding. O’Hare, the Steere’s first puppy, ultimately went to a preteen with autism. A trained dog becomes “a fabulous ice-breaker” and the child becomes just “the kid with the dog,” Kara said.

Next came Caleb, who also had a “change of career,” and the Steeres kept him as a pet until he died.

Garnet was next and he went to live with a disabled movie critic in Baltimore.

Newark was the name of puppy number four, and he wound up in a retirement home for nuns, providing them with welcome company and soothing exercise for their arthritic hands.

All the dogs are golden retriever-labrador retriever mixes, and all are bred by Canine Companions, then placed with the volunteer puppy raisers before they go for professional training. When they are around nine years old they retire to a life of leisure, sometimes staying, as a pet, with the person they were placed with, but most of the time going with a family member of the disabled person, Kara said.

The puppy raiser’s job is fairly simple – get the dogs used to being around people, walking on various surfaces and being in everyday situations, like grocery stores, restaurants and Little League games.

“We get the dogs used to the human world,” Kara said.

The dogs found suitable for further training, she said, “have a willingness to work, a gentle attitude toward life and soft mouths,” meaning they avoid hurting anything that winds up in their mouth, like a sock or a human hand.

Puppy raisers are required to fill out monthly reports and they should take the dogs to two obedience classes a month.

When they are about a year and a half, trainers at a CCI center give them six to nine months of professional training, teaching skills like opening doors, turning on lights, getting snacks from the refrigerator and paying cashiers.

The dogs are usually about two years old when they are placed.

While it’s sad to give the dogs back, Kara said, “it’s nice how they do it.” On the day the dogs graduate from their training course, the puppy raisers watch them go home with the person the dog is matched with, so “it closes the circle.”