Tassels and gowns were absent from today’s Canine Support Teams graduation ceremony at Monteleone Meadows in Murrieta, but the tail-wagging grads proved they were all top of the class.
Nearly 200 people, some in wheelchairs, watched as more than 20 dogs of varying breeds received their honorary Canine Support Teams diplomas. The degrees validated the pooches’ high achievements as service animals for people with disabilities.
Based in Temecula, Canine Support Teams is a non-profit organization that trains dogs for service work. The group also facilitates matching trained dogs up with suitable disabled clients.
While the well-groomed grads — Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Standard Poodles and others — simply took the ceremony in stride, the human element behind the event was full of emotion.
“When I see big guys in wheelchairs — wounded veterans who fought for our country — whose lives are changed by these dogs, it brings tears to my eyes,” said Bruce Cripe, United Way director and Canine Support Teams graduation speaker.
“I’m at awe at the spirit in this room,” said Annette Richardson, who was on hand with Canine Support grad, Blessed, a female Golden Retriever.
Richardson, an occupational therapist who uses Blessed in her work, said the canine’s ability to assist children is what makes her so special.
“She gives them confidence and extinguishes all fear,” Richardson said. “Blessed is so perfect for the job. Her personality is priceless.”
Sherry Buchbinder, who was born with knee deformities that have put her in a wheelchair intermittently throughout her life, said her service dog, an 8-year-old Chocolate English Labrador named Barker, has changed her world.
“He has done so much for me,” Buchbinder said. “He is my companion and I love him dearly. Right now I’m not using a wheelchair, and it’s because he helps me with my balance. He gives me independence that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Barker, whose frosted gray snout betrays his years and wisdom, is now an official Canine Support Teams grad and has become an ambassador of sorts for the service dog industry, Buchbinder said.
“He visits Make-A-Wish children and their families — the kids just light up when he is around. It means the world to me,” Buchbinder said. “I have a puppy in training now that will eventually replace Barker when he retires, but this one,” Buchbinder said pointing down to her four-legged best friend, “is special.”
The nearly two-year training that goes into preparing a dog like Barker for a service career is extensive. The dogs learn to pull wheelchairs, turn lights on and off, push elevator buttons, retrieve items, open doors, bark to get help, and more.
Canine Support Teams utilizes a barrage of volunteers for training, adoptions, administrative and fundraising work.
A unique program adopted by Canine Support Teams is its Prison Pups initiative. The program, which places green-behind-the-ears pups with inmate trainers, has churned out dozens of well-rounded service dogs, said Canine Support Teams Marketing and Fund Director Shannon Burk. Today, 85 percent of all Canine Support Teams dogs that get placed with clients are trained by the female inmates.
“The Prison Pup Program is very successful and benefits everyone,” Burk said. “It’s a way for the women to give back something they took away from society.”
She continued, “It’s all about the dogs and what they do for us isn’t it.”
Toni McAllister is SWRNN’s lifestyles editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.