During the week in Tampa for the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games, a handful of service and companion dogs could be spotted in the area. One organization that would like to see even more dogs united with veterans is Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization formed in 1975 that featured its services at the NVWG Expo.
CCI's Tom Flynn and Solomon are featured in this NVWG video as well as veterans talking about the importance of their service dogs.
CCI’s Wounded Veterans Initiative attempts to connect more veterans with dogs—for free. The organization offers four types of dogs: service dogs, skilled companion dogs, hearing dogs, and facility dogs, which typically work with a professional in an education or healthcare setting. Typically veterans are most interested in service or companion dogs.
Tom Flynn, who works with the North Central Regional Center of CCI, said that the organization is the oldest and largest to provide free dogs for those who need them. Flynn added that the group is particularly interested in working with Paralyzed Veterans of America, saying “You have the people, we have the dogs.”
The animals are all born in Santa Rosa, Calif. Flynn said that the dogs are either golden retrievers, Labradors, or, most commonly, a mix of the two breeds. After eight weeks the dogs are sent to various regions to puppy raisers, who care for them and do basic training until the dogs are 16 months old. At graduation from that phase, the dogs are turned back in for more extensive training that lasts seven more months. After all that, only 40 percent of dogs make it as a certified assistance dog.
Flynn added that the waiting list for a dog is at least 18 months, so he encourages veterans who may want a dog to speak to CCI as soon as possible. Eligible veterans include those with a physical disability resulting from military service; full or partial use of upper body; good cognitive ability and clear speech; a stable home life to provide for a dog’s basic needs; an adjusted life with at least one year post-rehabilitation; and who needs a good to perform tasks to mitigate the effects of a physical disability.
By the time they are paired with a veteran, the dogs have learned more than 40 commands and can do tasks such as opening and closing doors and drawers, turning on and off lights, retrieve items, and even pull a wheelchair. Flynn added that the dogs also serve simply as a companion and for socialization. “The wheelchair becomes invisible when a dog is there,” Flynn said. “It’s all about the dog first. The dog acts as an ice breaker.”
Learn more about Paralyzed Veterans of America members and their service dogs
Tim W. Jackson is a freelance writer and editor in Asheville, N.C.