Alice & Abel (and 4 other CCI puppies)

     AbelI was hesitant to enter this contest because it meant I would have to reveal a lot of personal things I wasn't sure I wanted to share. But knowing “Golden” people are the most loving in the world and how much Abel and the other CCI puppies I have raised have meant to me, I decided to enter. My life has been changed by not only one Golden, but five!
     I should start off by telling you I have been disabled since September 1987. I have been on the medical merry go round for most of this time. It all started out as an unrelenting pain in the lower left side of my abdomen. I have since been through more tests than I care to mention, Doctors, Specialists, four surgeries, the Mayo Clinic, four weeks in a pain therapy program, and still don't have definitive answers. At one point, I was practically immobile which is where the pain therapy program came in and got me back on my feet. It has been a challenge everyday to stay on them.
     I was a tomboy growing up with three brothers who played football, baseball, and basketball, often with my Dad coaching them. I also took tap, ballet, jazz, acrobatics, and baton. I married in 1971, and I started having kids in 1974. I have four sons (including a set of twins in the middle) so being a tomboy really helped then. I always had an active lifestyle.
     As one pain developed into more pain in more places, and my health in general went downhill, I became more and more depressed. I wasn't able to work anymore and I couldn't take care of my family. Being obsessive compulsive this was devastating to me. And the more immobile I became, the more weight I gained which sure didn't help me physically and didn't do much for my self esteem which was already taking a beating as I became less productive.
     My husband worked for Sam's Club which meant we had to relocate a lot. We were in 13 places in 10 years; worse than the military! All the moving around meant I didn't have the support of friends and family. I had to watch as my sons took on the responsibility for the house, the cooking, etc. I felt more and more worthless and cut myself off more and more from the rest of the world. I didn't make friends when we moved because I just didn't have the energy to be a friend. Plus, I felt I didn't really have anything to offer as a friend. Eventually, I only went out of the house when I had too.
     After our last son moved out of the house in 1998, I really didn't have a reason to get out of bed anymore. My husband was traveling and only home every other weekend at best.
     Around 1989, I had seen a segment on the old “Home” show about Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) that I never forgot. CCI is a non-profit organization that provides service dogs for people with disabilities. I have always been a dog lover and thought maybe being a volunteer puppy raiser was something I could do. Having a puppy certainly demands you get out of bed in the morning and sometimes at night too. I also knew at some point I might need a service dog of my own so what better way to prepare for that than puppy raising. I had no idea what a huge difference CCI was to make in my life.
     CCI has their own breeding program with Goldens, Labs, and Golden/Lab crosses. Because I am allergic to dogs (but can't live without them), I told CCI I could only raise Goldens. Of course this was fine with me because I happen to love them anyway because we had one of our own, Cinnamon. My non-medical theory is their long hair holds the dander in which is what causes the allergies. With the short hair dogs, the dander is just flying around everywhere.
     My first puppy, Jessie arrived in Hickory, North Carolina (where we were living then) July 1998 and with him came a whole new world of loving caring people. They didn't judge and they never expected more of you than you could give. They were always quick to help with anything. With Jessie I met and made friends with other CCI people from all over North and South Carolina, as well as all over the southeast. And for the first time in years, I felt I was giving something back.
     Jessie was an amazing big blonde Golden who stayed by my side and did anything I asked of him. In August 1999, it came time to turn him in for Advanced Training at CCI-NE on Long Island, New York. I thought I would die. I had also lost our pet dog, Cinnamon, to cancer while raising Jessie so I went home to an empty house. I wasn't so sure I could stand that much heartbreak no matter how much I believed in the program but decided to give it a try again. But the next time I had to turn in, I would be certain I Ronnie and Golden Jessiehad another puppy to ease the pain.
     Laura arrived in November 1999. She was so smart and such a sweetheart. We moved again; this time to northern Virginia. Once again, I was welcomed into a whole new circle of friends in the DC, Virginia and Maryland area, as well as all over the northeast. And once again, they didn't judge you and were always quick to help one another.
     Jessie went on to graduate as a Service Dog in May 2000. I attended his graduation and was able to meet his new partner. What a feeling to hand over the lead at the graduation knowing you have given someone an independence they might have never known.
     Abel arrived in August 2000. I had been in touch with the CCI breeder/caretaker of his Sire, OMSI, before the pups were sent out to the puppy raisers. She had seen this litter of pups and told me there was one pup that had this distinctive “ridge” between his eyes she called a Mohawk. I was really hoping to get this one and couldn't have been more excited when I first saw the chubby little Abel with the Mohawk between his eyes! I am told if he wanted to be in the show ring this would disqualify him. For me, it's what makes him unique and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.
     Laura turned in to CCI-NE for Advanced Training February 2001. Although it was still heartbreaking, it really helped to have Abel to go home with.
     In May 2001, I got a call I never want to get again. They had found a lump on Laura's tail. They removed it and the biopsy results came back with cancer so the decision had been made to amputate her tail and she was probably going to be released from CCI. AsLovely Golden Laura the puppy raiser, I have first option to get any released puppy I raise back.
     At first thought, you would think I would jump at the chance to get her back and that was my first instinct. But Laura was so smart and very high energy. She always did everything I asked of her but she always wanted to be doing something. Over the past couple of years, my health had deteriorated some so I wasn’t sure it was the right decision for me, or her, to keep her.
     There is never any problem finding a home for these wonderful dogs because they are so well trained. I had three families who were interested in getting her. But all of these families had working moms so she would be home alone during the day. She had always been home with someone so I really just didn’t feel great about any of the homes. I was really torn because we did love her a lot so why not keep her.
     Then G-d stepped in to help guide things. While raising Laura we were on a CCI outing and met a family who had a special needs son named Petey. After learning about CCI, the mom, Margaret, went home and immediately applied for a CCI dog for Petey. She and I became friends because I tried to offer her support through the application process that can take up to a year or more. So naturally, she had been helping me through all this with Laura. She made an offhand comment about Laura that made me realize their family might love to have her. She has three other children and decided they wanted Laura for them since Petey would eventually have his CCI dog. As soon as I offered Laura, she immediately said yes. And from the minute she said yes, I just knew in my heart it was the right thing. So Laura went to live with them.
     To our surprise (though in hindsight I should have thought of this), Laura began to put her Advanced Training skills to use to help with Petey. So now she is a non-CCI skilled coGolden Gabempanion for Petey and they are no longer on the list for a CCI dog.
     In June 2001, pup #4, Gabe arrived. He was a very blonde boy with lots of confidence. He is currently in Advanced Training at CCI-NE and we are hoping for his graduation as a Skilled Companion or possibly a Facility Dog in May 2003.
     While raising Abel, we found he was not a very confident dog. What confidence he had seemed to come from me. When he was not with me, he was looking for me, even when my husband was handling him. He was not comfortable in crowded, noisy situations. He did whatever I asked of him but the ears would be back, the tail down, and he was very alert to everything around him. So I asked the trainers at CCI-NE to evaluate him. They agreed with my assessment and released him in September 2001, right after the terrorist attack on 9/11.
     There was no question in my mind about keeping him. Frankly, I was as attached to him as he was to me. I, as many other Americans, was an emotional wreck after 9/11 and knew my world had completely changed. Abel had become my rock in the uncertainty we all live with now. Unfortunately, my health started to reflect the additional stress on my life. Golden puppy Varly
     But in April 2002, I got a call from CCI-NE about a male Golden puppy that happened to be Laura’s nephew because her brother, Lido, had become a breeder for CCI. CCI was looking for a puppy raiser for him so I said yes. So Lavar, who became known as Varly, arrived. What a sweet and goofy boy and I immediately fell in love with him.
     Unfortunately, I noticed he had very flaky skin. All this dander was really affecting my allergies and making me very sick. CCI asked to have him tested for a rare skin condition called icthyosis. The test came back positive and he was released from CCI. As much as I wanted to keep him, I just couldn’t so I again was faced with the decision of finding the right home for him. As it turned out, Laura’s family decided they wanted him too so he is happily living a fun and wonderful life with his Aunt Laura. And I count my blessings once again for having met this wonderful family and I love them all dearly.
     With all that had happened over the past year or so my health had been affected and I began to have more balance issues. Because I had gotten so ill with Varly, I had decided not to get another puppy from CCI right away. Gabe left for Advanced Training in August 2002 and it was just Abel and I. It was very strange to not have a puppy around but with only Abel to care for, I realized just how much raising a puppy had been taking out of me.
     I had fallen several times over the past year in the house and yard and started to be afraid to go out on my own. I had noticed a lot of changes in Abel over the past six months so I decided to stAbelart working with him to help me. Abel learned how to pick things up for me, he learned how to brace to help me get up and down, and most of all, he is a steadying presence by my side. So I began to go out again with him. Only recently he has learned to get the phone for me from anywhere in our home. So now if I fall, I know I will be able to get help.
     Abel is still not as confident as I would like but I am seeing improvement with him all the time. I think of him as a late bloomer. I don’t think he would have ever made it in the kennels had he turned in to CCI so I still feel it was the right decision to release him. Having known at some point, I would need a dog of my own, I see the hand of G-d again in sending the little chubby puppy with the Mohawk between his eyes to me.
     So five beautiful Goldens and CCI have changed my life for the better. As we are planning a move to Washington State soon, I have already been in touch with and met some wonderful CCI people there. With Abel by my side, I feel more confident going out in public and more comfortable at home knowing I can get help if I need it. I have been blessed to play a small part in helping others with disabilities by raising CCI puppies. And I'm most certainly blessed to have made many lifelong friends whom I never would have met had it not been for CCI and my five amazing Goldens.


Entry written by Alice Johnson of Stafford, VA
* First Place Award Recipient

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