Columbia volunteers raise canine companions for people with disabilities

Monday, October 24, 2011 | 2:31 p.m. CDT; updated 10:26 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 24, 2011

COLUMBIA — Joyce Spainhower's shirt sported the slogan for Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance dogs for those in need — "Some angels have wings, others have tails."

On Friday, Spainhower conducted a seminar at the Columbia Area Senior Center to speak about her experience as a volunteer for the organization that trains dogs to help those with disabilities.

Glitzy, a 1-year-old golden retriever-Labrador cross, sat at her feet patiently awaiting visitors. As seats filled, she greeted them one by one with a shake and an occasional "hug."

"Glitzy already knows what she wants to do when she grows up," Spainhower said. "She wants to be a hearing dog."

Spainhower and her husband, Gordon, are puppy-raisers for Canine Companions for Independence. After a lengthy application process, puppies get sent to raisers when they are about 8 weeks old to receive basic training for 14 to 16 months. Raisers are not required to have any training experience but just the time, money and desire to take care of the puppies. They teach general commands as well as manners and potty training.

The Spainhowers applied through Canine Companions for Independence in Columbus, Ohio — the closest center of the five in the United States — and are the only raisers in Columbia.

After raisers finish their work, the puppies move on to advanced training in hopes of graduating and becoming an assistance dog of any type. Canine Companions for Independence has four categories: service dogs, hearing dogs, facility dogs and skilled companions.

If puppies do not pass advanced training, they become pet dogs for adoptive families.

"Raising puppies has been a wonderful experience," Spainhower said.

Glitzy is the Spainhowers' fifth puppy, and they plan to continue raising others once they turn her over in February.

"Each one is hard to say goodbye to," she said. "You turn in the leash with one hand while wiping tears with the other."

However, they don't have to say goodbye every time. The Spainhowers' first puppy, Hoven, did not graduate advanced training, and they immediately adopted him.

Of the previous puppies the Spainhowers have raised, their fourth, Crystal, was the first to graduate and become a skilled companion. Crystal's graduation was a proud day for her trainers.

Spainhower hopes Glitzy gets the opportunity to graduate as well and touch the life of someone in need of her assistance.

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