Graduate Stories

Enjoy a selection of stories of Canine Companions teams and volunteers:


“Having a dog by my side makes me feel like I really can do anything.”

Bari received her first Canine Companions service dog, Carol, while still in college in 1988. Carol helped Bari meet fellow students, pick up dropped pens and get the button for the elevator door, but most of all, Carol helped open Bari up to all of the possibilities of a more independent life. "Having a dog by my side made me feel like I really could do anything,” says Bari. “Having Carol took away limitations I had placed on myself in my mind. I started to think about where my life could take me, now that I had a service dog."

Bari has Still's disease, which is a severe form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. She can't reach far in front of her or even reach the top of her head. "Counters might as well be a mile high," explains Bari. “And if I dropped something and no one was around to get it for me, it just stayed on the floor.” Before her Canine Companions assistance dogs, Bari was dependent on a caregiver or family member to help her. In 2008, she received her fourth service dog Axel III.

“Axel, is 9-years-old now and he still loves to work. He thinks it is the coolest thing in the world to have this job,” says Bari. Bari’s disability causes her hands to be weak and during flare-ups, holding things can be painful. “Sometimes I just drop an item once, but some days I’ll drop the same thing 20 times. My assistance dogs have always been there for me with wagging tails, ready to help with the next item.”


Slowing the Progression of Huntington’s

In October 2007, Bob learned why he had been struggling with reasoning, concentration, fatigue and uncontrollable muscle movements. He was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a progressive disorder of the brain that inhibits patients physically, emotionally and socially.

Because of his disease, Bob learned he could no longer drive, work or participate in the activities he did growing up in Colorado and Idaho. He was relegated to the sidelines watching his three sons do the things he loved to share with them, like downhill skiing and water sports.

A neurologist mentioned to Bob’s wife, Nila, that an assistance dog could help ease the physical and emotional pain of Bob’s illness. And in 2010, Canine Companions for Independence made it possible for Bob to graduate with assistance dog Exeter, free of charge.

Exeter is always there for Bob as his disease progresses; picking up the many things that Bob drops, turning out the lights or helping Bob get a soda from the fridge.

Donations from people like you helped make it possible for Canine Companions to give Exeter to Bob free of charge.

Bob’s disability often goes unseen or is misinterpreted. “Huntington’s disease robs a person of their motor control and behavioral capabilities,” says Nila. “Often, people would see Bob stumbling and assume he was intoxicated. They didn’t understand that he was only under the influence of Huntington’s.”

After being matched with Exeter, that story has changed dramatically. “People see Exeter in his blue Canine Companions vest and instantly understand that Bob has a disability. Now instead of confronting him, they offer their assistance.”

While Huntington’s disease can cause a loss of interest in many activities, Exeter has captured Bob’s heart. They spend hours together snuggling while Bob holds Exeter’s paws. The physical and emotional benefits Exeter has provided Bob has even slowed the progression of Huntington’s disease.

“Stress hastens the progression of Huntington’s disease, but knowing that Exeter will get the phone if Bob falls and letting the public know that he has a disability has reduced stress for Bob,” states Nila. “Both the doctors and I can agree that Bob is doing as well as he is because of the presence of Exeter in his life.”


Not Just Another Accessory

When Emily Cikra got the call inviting her to the May 2012 Team Training at the North Central Training Center, her initial reaction wasn’t one of joy. “The embarrassing thought that came into my mind was that having a service dog would be another accessory to add to my arsenal of things that make me stand out,” she explains. “I already have a wheelchair, trach with occasional ventilator and sometimes a brace on my hand. It felt like a lot for people to take in as is and adding a dog to this mix felt over the top.”

But the Bay Village, Ohio resident chose to ignore those feelings and she is so thankful she did. Emily explains, “My service dog, Dash II, has done the exact opposite of what I feared. He has not added to my ‘disability accessories,’ he has actually detracted from them!”

With Dash by her side, Emily has found that people are more comfortable approaching her in public. “Often, once I’ve answered a few questions about Dash, people realize that although I am in a wheelchair, I am the same as anyone else,” she says. “Dash has helped to bridge a gap that shouldn’t exist anyway—the gap between me as a woman with a disability and the rest of the able-bodied world.”

Dash assists Emily by picking up dropped items, opening doors, turning light switches on and off and pushing automatic door buttons. Emily’s favorite command is “visit,” when Dash rests his head in her lap so she can give him some love.

“Canine Companions has given me the best gift I have ever received,” says Emily. “I truly desire for other people that would benefit from one of these amazing dogs to get one as soon as possible.” To that end, Emily is very active with the Northern Ohio volunteer group. She often speaks at community events, attends training sessions with puppy raisers and raises funds for the Cleveland DogFest Walk ‘n Roll event.

What’s Emily’s advice for anyone who is thinking of applying for an assistance dog from Canine Companions? “Do it! You will not regret it!” she says. “Dash has exceeded my expectations in furthering my independence.”


Bridging the Gap to Independence

“Marco has brought Barbara so much happiness. I’ve seen her desire to be independent grow because of him,” says Barbara’s mom, Gloria. Marco is Barbara’s Canine Companions assistance dog.

"I knew an assistance dog would help bridge the gap between Barbara and the rest of the world, but I didn’t know if we’d qualify since Barbara cannot give traditional commands to a dog,” says Gloria.

Barbara has cerebral palsy. She has limited verbal communication and is quadriplegic.

But Barbara did qualify! And now, over 2 years after receiving Marco from Canine Companions, Gloria can’t imagine Barbara’s life without him.

“Barbara and Marco have developed a special way of communicating. Their bond is incredible. Barbara will call Marco with clicks of her tongue and he knows that she is calling him. He will come to her and push his head under her arm so she can pet him. He knows how to position himself so Barbara can reach him,” explains Gloria.

People used to talk to Gloria, ignoring Barbara. But when Barbara holds Marco’s leash, people talk to her directly. “Marco has improved Barbara’s self-esteem so much. She loves the attention and has so much pride when she takes him on walks,” says Gloria. Before Marco, Barbara used to be self conscious about using her natural voice in public. But with Marco, Barbara will firmly tell people “no” if they ask to pet him while he is busy working. Marco has given her a sense of ownership and responsibility.

“Barbara will tell Marco to ‘sit down,’ and she says it with such authority. As a mother, it has been amazing to see her confidence grow,” states Gloria.

Service Dog Garrison Saves the Day

Bill sustained his life-changing injuries while serving our country in the US Coast Guard.

“After seeing my doctor through the VA for so many years, I think he knew the extent to which an assistance dog would be able to help me,” Bill explains.

Now Bill is a successful businessman and an active community member. He served on school boards, planning commissions and as treasurer for The Paralyzed Veteran Association.

Garrison greets Bill every morning wagging his tail, holding his food bowl in his mouth and is by Bill’s side every minute of the day.

“Being in a chair, people think your ability to think and speak is different. Garrison changes that, he acts as an ice breaker and people treat me normally,” Bill continues.

“People always ask me about Garrison, and I tell them how he helps me. But really I want them to know about what an amazing organization Canine Companions is. I’ve worked a great deal in volunteer leadership and fundraising, and I’ve never seen a more giving organization in my life.”

Independence for Anna

Anna was born profoundly deaf. She often misses sounds like phones, door knocks, and traffic. When she’s asleep or not wearing her aids, she’s completely deaf.

Anna and her parents knew a Hearing Dog would increase Anna’s independence. After researching a number of different organizations, they applied to Canine Companions.

As Anna hoped for a Hearing Dog, volunteer puppy raisers Warren, Robyn, and Erik Strand of Cameron Park, CA received their third Canine Companions puppy, Yashira. Yashira was nearly as dynamic and enthusiastic as the Strand family! Both Warren and Robyn Strand are officers for our Gold Rush Volunteer Chapter in Sacramento, CA and wear many hats for the chapter.

“We feel that our support of Canine Companions helps give many individuals a life changing opportunity,” explains Warren.

When Yashira entered professional training, her trainer recognized the qualities of a Hearing Dog: energy, food drive, confidence, and eagerness to learn. Yashira thrived as she learned to work as a Hearing Dog.

Meanwhile, Anna thrived too. She learned that she’d been accepted to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. Anna’s parents were excited, but concerned about Anna living alone so far away from home. Then, Anna got an invitation to attend Team Training to receive a Canine Companions Hearing Dog.

After seeing Anna and Yashira work together, trainers Ken and Shelley knew that Yashira’s enthusiasm had found its match! Anna’s dream of partnering with a Hearing Dog finally came true when she met the Strands, graduated from Team Training, and went home with Yashira….all free of charge.

“Whenever we see Anna and Yashira we cannot help but smile because we know we have accomplished something that will last for years to come,” Warren says.

"Before Yashira, I was always afraid of missing out on the important things,” Anna continues, “Now, my family can feel comfortable sending me off to college in the fall, where Yashira will help me stay safe and make new friends!"

Learn more about our Hearing Dogs


Special Education Students Enjoy "T-Time"

Facility Dog Teal is also known as Doggie, Dog, Super T, Tealy Bear, Mr. Tiki, T-dog, T-friend and T the Helper. He is partnered with Melissa, an occupational therapist who works in schools and a private therapy clinic. Together, they are referred to as Melt—a nickname given by the special education students that Melissa and Teal work with.

“I see changes in my kids with just his presence in the room. T has truly made me a better therapist,” shares Melissa.

Melissa has so many memorable moments working with T. One child had been attempting to throw overhand all year and eventually succeeded while playing fetch with T. Another child overcame his fear of dogs with T. Another child, who has severely limited mobility and tightly-fisted hands, opened his hand long enough to feed T treats.“He gave the biggest smile, complete with dimples!” Melissa recalls.

Still another student, who is very shy and has speech challenges, gave her first speech in front of her class on T. “She was so proud of herself and told me that everyone is jealous of her because she gets to play with Mr. T! It was a huge confidence booster,” explains Melissa.

Learn more about Facility Dogs


Canine Companions Service Dog Caspin helps Wallis live independently.

"He can retrieve my phone and other dropped items, pull my wheelchair and open doors for me," she continues.

Wallis has a condition known as dystonia, a disease that causes her muscles to spasm spontaneously. She was at the pharmacy when a "dystonic attack" came on and she could not move. Caspin helped her pay the cashier, get the bag from the cashier and gracefully exit the store.



Savannah is eleven years old, plays basketball, excels in her schoolwork, is a cheerleader, studies music and dance, is a pageant winner and enjoys hiking. All from a wheelchair. Bravely facing health and social challenges that most of us can't imagine.

She could do all her homework every night, but she couldn't pick up her dropped pencil. She could speak openly on stage in front of hundreds of people and a panel of judges about her most personal health challenges, but she couldn't turn on a light switch.

Then came Zambique. Zambique picks up her dropped pencils and carries her backpack. All with a wagging tail. But that's just what Zambique was trained to do. There's more that people don't see.

Every night Savannah undergoes an hour-long medical procedure. Zambique lies next to her, foccusing on Savannah, not the procedure. Every night eleven-year-old Savannah goes through this procedure bravely and independently. But not alone. She has Zambique.

Robin knew an assistance dog would help her son Braden, challenged with autism. She contacted several organizations who expected her to do a great deal of fundraising before receiving a dog.

"I had basically given up hope, then I learned that Canine Companions for Independence was training dogs for autistic children," says Robin.

In May 2007 Robin and Braden graduated from Team Training with Skilled Companion Camille, free of charge and free of fundraising. Since then, Camille has changed Braden's life.

"Braden is much more social, calmer in public, and is developing empathy," Robin continues. "Camille gives Braden acceptance and love, without expecting him to be like everyone else." 


For breakfast, CCI Service Dog Benjamin opens a special drawer in the kitchen and retrieves a basket filled with a coffee cup, equal and other breakfast supplies for Bob. After breakfast he helps Bob clean up and returns the basket to its assigned drawer.

In addition, Benjamin helps by retrieving items from the refrigerator and from drawers, opening and closing doors, turning on and off light switches and carrying laundry. Diane is working on training him to help fold large sheets by holding a corner, but Bob says Benjamin helps the most by picking up items he drops and moving items from the path of his wheelchair.

Benjamin has touched even more lives than the Cline's. Bob and Benjamin are often seen around their town providing assistance dog presentations and demonstrations for community and civic organizations, and Benjamin often accompanies Diane and assists in offering behavioral therapy at an Illinois State Hospital.

James and TiffanyJames III is eighteen years old and looks like your "typical" teenager. But James is challenged with autism. With the support of his family, James faces these challenges everyday. In 2006, James received a four-legged support system, a CCI assistance dog Tiffany.

"James, who was essentially non-verbal, now issues some verbal commands to Tiffany," his father, James Jr. explains. "Additionally, because Tiffany is with James in social situations, the typical autistic behaviors of spinning, hand flapping and rocking are almost eliminated."

"For Sheila and I, a life full of ability and independence has gotten four steps or four paws closer because of CCI for our son, James," summarizes James Jr.

James Jr. is extremely grateful for Tiffany and the CCI community who made it possible for her to be an assistance dog. He understands fully his responsibility to maintain Tiffany's training and regularly brings her to work on Capitol Hill with him.

One day when James Jr. and Tiffany were walking near the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, a Congressman approached them and began inquiring about Tiffany. After James Jr. explained Tiffany's training and how she assists his son, the Congressman asked if she did any tricks. James gave her the "speak" command, and Tiffany's bark echoed through the halls of Congress. The Congressman said, "That's the most intelligent speech I've heard in Congress this week!"

Anecdotes aside, James Jr. knows that CCI assistance dogs and the CCI community are a true blessing. "CCI gives not only exceptional dogs for exceptional people, not only independence, but true, honest, loyal and wonderful friends who are willing to be uncompromising and unwavering disciples of the disabled."

Betsy and MorrowParalympics Athletes Assisted by CCI Facility Dog Morrow
On September 2, 2008 the US Paralympic Sailing Team will begin competing in China at the 2008 Paralympic Games. Since May 2007, Coach Betsy Alison has had a unique assistant, Canine Companions for Independence Facility Dog Morrow II.

"Morrow has been more of a physical and emotional support to the athletes than anyone anticipated. Physically, Morrow picks up out of reach items, carries athlete bags and gear, and even assists with docking the boats by bringing fenders to the sailors. Emotionally, Morrow has been a training constant for the athletes who often travel away from home and their support systems to attend camps and competition," shares Coach Betsy Alison.

After observing the sailors with their pets, Alison thought that a "team dog" could act as a stress reducer and psychological motivator for athletes. Alison consulted with several sports psychologists who agreed with her concept.

In May 2007 she added a new member to the sailing team -- an exceptional Facility Dog when she graduated from Canine Companions for Independence with Morrow II.

Thanks to his training at Canine Companions Morrow can assist the sailors with tasks like picking up dropped tools and carrying life jackets and dry bags. He is currently learning to help pull wheelchairs up the dock. Additionally, Morrow is a constant professional. He is not distracted by common sounds aboard the coach boat like air horns and whistles or by waves and other boats.

The team includes eighteen disabled athletes -- many with spinal cord injuries of varying severity, about half in wheelchairs. The sailors range in age from 22 to 72 and come from all backgrounds. Alison noticed that when a sailor makes errors or performs poorly on the water, they often internalized the stress and their mental state suffers. "Morrow provides stress reduction. You can't help but smile at his unconditional love and regain a positive outlook," says Alison.

Betsy, a five-time US SAILING Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year and two-time Ynglling World Champion, has been working with athletes of the US Disabled Sailing Team for several years, accompanying the U.S. Paralympic Sailing Team to the 2000 and 2004 Paralympic Games. She has been a staff coach of the US Disabled Sailing Team since March 2006.

Facility Dog Morrow will not be traveling to China for the Paralympics with the team, but he has been key to their preparation.

"I'll bring some pictures of Morrow along with his well wishes for the team, that will undoubtedly put smiles on our athletes' faces," explains Coach Alison.

“This moment is more than I could ever ask for,” shares volunteer puppy raiser Peggy. As a volunteer puppy raiser, Peggy lives for one moment. To see the puppy she raised with a graduate. Peggy experienced this life changing moment for the first time in 1994, when the puppy she raised, Tally, graduated as an assistance dog to help a teenage boy with cerebral palsy.

“Walking in the door, and seeing Tally with his new partner Eddie for the first time was so beautiful. I had to close the door and go cry my eyes out before I could go back in,” Peggy explains.

Since that moment in 1994, Peggy has gone on to raise a total of fourteen puppies and is currently raising puppy number fifteen. Peggy knows that each puppy she raises will impact lives, starting with her own.

“Raising puppies is the greatest thing I’ve ever done — and the incredible thing is that I am blessed beyond measure. It’s an odd thing how it works backwards like that. I’ve grown as a person into realizing that giving back even just a little bit is the highlight of my life,” explains Peggy.

Muffy and lebeMuffy Davis began ski-racing at age three. She soon realized she had special talents and wanted some day to ski race in the Olympics. Then, at age 16, Muffy's life changed. While skiing she veered off-course and slammed into two trees at 55 mph, crushing her back and almost killing her. In the ensuing months she faced and overcame numerous physical and psychological challenges.

But that little voice inside kept repeating her goals and before long Muffy was involved in disabled ski-racing winning many awards, including four gold medals.

In August 2006, Muffy graduated from CCI with Service Dog Leibe, a two-year-old black Labrador. Muffy feels she has more adventures and explores more because of Leibe. For instance, she used to be unable to enjoy the feeling of picnicking on the warm but slightly damp grass in the park. Because without Leibe she couldn't get back into her wheelchair on her own. Now Leibe braces her and Muffy can get in and out her wheelchair as she pleases.

But life is not all about work for Muffy and Leibe. Muffy says, "He loves it and plays just like a little kid!"

Jennifer johnson and millie iiChild Life Specialist Jennifer Johnson and Facility Dog Millie II are one of three CCI Facility Dog graduate teams working in the Children’s Center at Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento, CA. Together Jennifer and Millie help children with cancer, like Jaiden, pictured in the photo to the left, cope with life in the hospital. which can be a scary and overwhelming experience for children and their families.

“Millie has a huge impact on all of the people around her. She gives them a sense of well-being, a connection to their home life, a bridge to trusting hospital staff and motivation to get out of bed,” shares Jennifer.

Jennifer is proud to be a CCI graduate and work with a CCI Facility Dog. She says, “CCI gives people the medium to have freedom and acceptance in their lives, which everyone deserves.”

Paul and bree iii"Awesome," is the word Paul Ogden uses to describe Hearing Dog Bree III and CCI. After training his own hearing dog and then receiving Bree from CCI, Paul believes, "There is no comparison with a CCI dog."

He shares that Bree responds to every little request, knows all the routines and is a great assistance, providing not only independence but also security.

In his busy professional life, Paul travels frequently and stays in hotels. Before receiving Bree, he did not sleep well in hotels, always worried about how he would hear an emergency alarm. With Bree, Paul sleeps soundly, feeling confident that she will alert him to any alarm.

This isn't the only way that Bree enhances Paul's traveling experiences. Paul says, "When I travel with Bree, people forget that I'm deaf and feel more comfortable with me. Bree helps make people feel that I am normal, like everyone else."


Visit our videos page for more inspirational graduate stories!

Have a great story? Submit it here.
Copyright © 2015 Canine Companions for Independence, Inc. All rights reserved.