Brenda Weeks has always had a dog in her life. She’s been training them since age 10 and has co-owned the Shangri-La Kennels of Auburn with her husband, Don Weeks, for 29 years.
But a recent canine addition to the Weeks’ home is unlike anything she’s previously experienced.
Brenda, who has advanced multiple sclerosis, was paired with a service dog named Buffy through Canine Companions for Independence. The organization provides highly trained assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities, at no cost to the recipient, thanks to the generosity of donors.
The 19-month-old black lab can perform 50 different assistance actions, such as turning on lights, opening doors and drawers and retrieving dropped objects for Brenda, who has limited use of one arm and uses a power wheelchair and ventilator.
According to John Bentzinger, a spokesperson for CCI, the cost to raise and train each dog is about $45,000, with ownership of the animal retained by CCI and yearly recertification tests also provided at no cost to the recipient.
The organization works exclusively with Labradors and golden retrievers because of the breeds’ history of service and good temperament. The dogs are bred at CCI’s national headquarters in Santa Rosa, Calif., and placed with volunteer puppy-raisers at five locations around the county.
“These puppy-raisers are the backbones of our organization,” Bentzinger said. “We couldn’t serve without them. They take the puppies into their homes, raise them, teach them basic commands and socialization skills. The socialization is perhaps the most important, because these dogs need to be exposed to all types of surroundings.”
At 18 months old, the dogs are returned to the regional headquarters for six months of advanced training and evaluated to determine their strengths and ability to meet a variety of needs.
The organization sets high performance standards for dogs enrolled in the program. Just four out of 10 dogs will advance to the final level of specialized training and placement.
“The (dogs) that graduate really are the cream of the crop,” Bentzinger said. “Right now there is about a year and a half wait to be invited to team training. That’s why puppy raising is so important to us. The more puppies that are raised, the more people we can serve.”
For Brenda, the wait was 2 1/2 years. She applied for consideration in 2010 and had to go through a five-step application process, ending with an in-depth interview to assess her physical needs and personality to pair her with a dog that would be the best fit for her.
“I am very quiet and laid back,” said Brenda. “Buffy matches my personality perfectly.”
In February, Brenda and eight others were invited to attend a two-week advanced training to acquaint themselves with the selected dogs for a proper match and to learn how to use commands.
The training ends with an often emotional graduation ceremony, where puppy-raisers ceremonially hand over the leashes of their canine charges to their new overseers.
Bentzinger said one of the big questions people ask about the program is, “How can you give up the dog after raising him or her in your home for a year and a half?”
“That isn’t easy, but when you see the tremendous difference the dog is making in the life of someone who really needs it, it makes it all worthwhile,” Bentzinger said. “Many puppy-raisers and graduate teams go on to form lifelong bonds, with regular communications and visits.”
Brenda said that since last February, she and Buffy have formed a tight bond and the syncronization of a polished dance team.
“When Buffy first arrived she was working for me. Now she is working with me, responding to my perceived needs without having to be asked.” Brenda said.
Doors and drawers in the Weeks’ home have been retrofitted with rope pulls for Buffy, who opens them with a tug of her mouth and closes them with a nudge of her nose.
Brenda, who uses a special valve on her ventilator to speak, also is teaching Buffy hand signals to communicate during times when she cannot give verbal commands.
Brenda said Buffy’s greatest asset has been her companionship.
“This dog has enriched my life in more ways than I ever could have imagined,” Weeks said. “She is like an extension of me and is a great helper and friend.”
And, speaking of friends, Brenda recently got reacquainted with some special people during a road trip to Disney World for her 55th birthday.
On the way to Florida, Don dropped by the New Jersey home of Buffy’s puppy-raisers, whom he’d arranged to join them for the trip to the Magic Kingdom.
“I cried,” said Brenda. “We have stayed in touch with them and I loved getting to know them better.”
“It was heartwarming for me to be able to show them how Buffy and I work together as a team, and how their efforts and sacrifice to raise her brought her to that place for me. It is a wonderful gift of independence.”
Deborah Sayer can be contacted at 791-6308 or at: