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Can Your Dog Carry Groceries?

Canine Companions for Independence are half dog, half angel

Walking through downtown Annapolis, you may have seen puppies training to be service dogs. They seem special, with their colorful vests and ability to go into stores.
    They are working to be selected for a special job, one that — in the words of Nancy Patterson who is part of a human-dog team — allows a “person to return to or begin a life of independence.”
    Because of Mahler, a Lab-golden mix, this former airline pilot is once again worry-free. He is her guardian angel, paired with her by Canine Companions for Independence, a national organization that provides highly trained assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities.
    Pairs are made at no cost thanks to the generosity of donors. Canine Companions breeds its own puppies, dogs that are intelligent, strong, devoted and eager to work.
    The puppy-raisers like Mike Hartsky are the backbone of the organization.
    Volunteers like Harting take the pups into their homes, nurture them and teach them basic commands and socialization skills. Socialization is perhaps the most important because the dogs need to be exposed to all sorts of surroundings. After about a year and a half, they are sent for six months of training. Only about four out of 10 dogs make it through this program, so the ones that graduate are the cream of the crop.
    Levin, Hartsky’s newest pup, is one of the special dogs you may see in downtown Annapolis. Levin came into Harding’s home after Nyak, his last pup, was selected to assist war veterans with their rehabilitation.
    “It’s a contagious thing,” Hartsky says. “Once you have raised one, you can never give it up. I volunteer in many ways, but in raising these pups, I found something that fits my mold perfectly: I can give back to the community, it is completely positive, manageable and long-term.”
    From such rearing grew Mahler, Patterson’s helper, who can fetch a dime Patterson has dropped or a credit card on a slippery floor. He carries her groceries from the car to her counter. He opens doors, pulls her up inclines and moves her closer to tables.
    “Mahler is my arms, legs and heart,” Patterson says. “With him by my side, there is nothing I can’t do. To use an accurate observation from a fellow Canine Companions graduate, friend and Iraq war veteran, Mahler is my teammate. With him I reach out every day to make a difference in people’s lives.”
     The more puppies being raised, the more people can be helped. Interested?
    “Volunteer breeder-caretakers and puppy raisers are to me living-heart donors,” Patterson says. “All those who donate much-needed funds, the trainers and staff who work tirelessly with incredible skill to see each team through to success and the graduates bring an indescribable independence and strength that reaches far.”

Meet the teams and help make new ones on April 27 at A Spectacular Event of Wine and Chocolate Tastings to benefit Canine Companions for Independence. 1-5pm at Annapolis Marriott Waterfront. $75; rsvp: www.cci.org/ST2014.