🐾 Puppy Raisers pass the leash as dogs train to be service animals

Canine Companions breed, train and support service dogs they provide free of charge

News 6 producer shares how she raises future service dogs through Canine Companions.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Behind the scenes, Haley Coomes produces newscasts you see on News 6 every day. But she plays another role behind the scenes as a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions.

Most recently, raising now 16-month-old Floranne, an old lab golden mix dog.

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“It was a classic case of a billboard. We don’t live very far away. I drive by the [Canine Companions] campus every day to work. My husband and I were talking about getting a dog and we did a little research and found a program where we can give back,” Coomes said.

Jamie, Haley and Flo (Copyright 2022 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Canine Companions is a nationwide organization that breeds, raises and trains service dogs that assist people with disabilities.

Before dogs like Floranne, nicknamed Flo, are matched with their forever families they spend time with puppy raisers. Haley and her husband, Jamie Martin, opening their home to Flo when she was 8 weeks old.

“It’s been such hard times for people these past few years and Canine Companions has been such a positive outlet for me. Taking her places and seeing something so positive grow is just a great feeling,” Coomes said.

Coomes and Martin took care of Flo, taking her to vet appointments, basic training sessions and just letting her be a puppy. She’s had many visits to Disney World as part of her training to get her acclimated with being around people and staying focused around many distractions.

Flo as a puppy (Copyright 2022 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Over a year later, it’s time to turn over the leash. An emotional but gratifying time for puppy raisers.

“You’re so happy that they’re going to go on and do fantastic stuff. The best gift anybody can ever receive,” Martin said.

“She’ll be such a good fit for somebody, but she’s been such a good friend,” Coomes said.

Flo will start her service dog training full-time with instructor Carley Bran.

“We definitely understand this is a bittersweet moment. They put a lot of time, energy and love into these dogs,” Bran said. “From this point, I get to meet the dogs and they get to meet their roommates and they’ll have playtime with their new friends. We teach different skills like retrieving items, pulling wheelchairs, turning on and off lights, opening doors.”

After about 6 months the dogs are evaluated and depending on their temperament and success of their training, they’ll graduate as a certified service dog.

A product of the program, Helios was paired with Joe Latimer. So far, they’ve spent 3 years together.

“I’m quadriplegic so my hands don’t work, and I drop a lot of things. He helps me with doors and light switches,” Latimer said.

Latimer was hit by a car walking along a crosswalk in 2015. Canine Companions provided a helping paw, Helios, free of charge.

“We just feel so grateful that there’s people out there willing to help people with disabilities and help improve their situations,” Latimer said. “Sorry I’m just getting a little chocked up because we just love our dog so much. He really is part of the family. Sometimes as a person with disabilities you can feel like a burden to people, but having a service dog, he’s always so happy and willing to help all the time.”

The cycle continuing for some puppy raisers like Coomes and Martin, looking forward to spreading love with a new canine companion in training.

“It was pure pleasure every step of the way... every paw of the way,” Coomes said.

Canine Companions has been operating for nearly 50 years and has graduated more than 7,100 service dogs.

If you’re wondering what happens to the dogs that don’t graduate the training program, they can have a change in career and become therapy dogs or their puppy raisers have the opportunity to adopt them.

Click HERE to learn more about volunteering or becoming a puppy raiser.

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About the Author:

Crystal Moyer is a morning news anchor who joined the News 6 team in 2020.