Nonprofit provides furry companions to ease life for people with disabilities

Canine Companions for Independence trains dogs to go through life with partners

By Carolina Cardona - Reporter

ORLANDO, Fla. - For people with some type of physical disability, every day can be a struggle, but one nonprofit organization is helping by making tasks as simple as getting a drink out of the refrigerator easier.

The organization is called Canine Companions for Independence, and a young Central Florida boy is just one person who's benefiting from it.

Chance is 7 years old and his best friend, Walden, is 2. 

WKMG photojournalist Justin Potter

Canine Companions for Independence works to make life easier for people living with disabilities.

"He's a great companion and a great friend, and just keeps him company and loves him," Amanda Kern said about the Labrador she got for her son in August. 

Walden is part of the Canine for Companions Independence nonprofit organization that provides assistance dogs for people with physical, cognitive and developmental disabilities.

“Walden is really great at helping get items if Chance drops them," Kern said.

Kern's son was born with spina bifida, a condition that causes a defect in the spine, which is why Chance relies on crutches. Chance also relies on Walden.

"The medical challenges are a lot for us to cope with and it's been amazing. We've been through some medical moments where there's nothing that can prevent his tears. He loves on Chance and gives him a great opportunity to not be alone through medical moments," Kern said. 

The Labs and golden retrievers arrive at about 2 years old to the facility in Orlando, where they go through advanced training for six months.

By the time they graduate at six months, the dogs have learned more than 40 commands, according to Canine Companions for Independence trainer Robyn Bush.

"One of the most requested items that we get is to retrieve things," Bush said.

WKMG photojournalist Justin Potter

Canine Companions for Independence works to make life easier for people living with disabilities.

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How much does it cost to own one of the life-changing pets?

"We're able to provide the dogs free of charge, so there's no cost to the recipient for the application process for team training itself. We have a dorm facility that's provided free of charge," Jen Hanes, the program manager for the organization, said. 

The families stay on campus for two weeks in a dorm that includes a kitchen, a living room, dining area and bedrooms, each with a bathroom designed for accommodation.

“Week one, we're just trying to assess the person. We want to make the best match possible. What's the perfect dog for them? And so we have them working with multiple dogs, and then week two, we'll focus on practicing the skills they learned here on campus out in the community," Hanes said. 

They're trained to flip light switches on, push the automatic door button to open and to pull open drawers and refrigerator doors.

"The moment for me that made a huge difference was when we had went through a medical EEG test where Chance had like 25 or 30 wires attached to his head, and he was screaming his head off. For us to see Walden sit right beside him the entire time and just love on him and keep him company really, it meant a lot to us," Kern said. 

Canine Companions for Independence is a national organization. The Orlando facility serves eight states in the southeast.

The organization operates through donations, corporate sponsorship, grants and people in the community who want to help the organization. 

The process to apply is first done online to request an application package, followed by a telephone and in-person interview. The application takes about six months.

For more information, visit www.cci.org.

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