Cavedale puppies hope to become Canine Companion service dogs

A new generation of servants is being bred in the Mayacamas Mountains, but they might be a little hairier and a lot shorter than you think.

Allison Ash and partner Marc Schwager are on their third litter with Velma, a canine pet dog who lives with them. Once they are 8 weeks old, they will be sent back to Canine Companions to begin training to become service dogs for people with 65 forms of disability, such as the blind, people with spinal cord or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s always sad because they’re taking over your life and it’s such a joy,” Ash said. “But eight puppies at 8 weeks old, it’s time for them to have the individual attention they need to go to individual homes.”

The current group of eight puppies, whose names all begin with the letter “L,” are the first Ash and Schwager have raised since birth. In two previous litters, they were hesitant to raise so many puppies on their own, they said, but Canine Companions provided the guidance and support needed to simplify the process and give them confidence in their ability to succeed. During the second litter, Canine Companions raised the puppies for the first four weeks, while Ash and Schwager raised the puppies for the next four weeks when puppies helped the couple build their confidence next time around.

“Once we had the puppies here their second four weeks, we were very confident we could do it all,” Ash said. “A person who has whelped puppies before…convinced us we could do it, helped us settle in, and found a place in our home.”

Michelle Williams, public relations manager for Canine Companions, said the organization works to prepare adoptive parents to raise puppies. Nail clippers and calendars pre-filled with health markers sit on a table next to the puppy pen, where a mix of plastic toys, a large teddy bear, a toy piano and, of course, , potty training pads, occupy the space inside. And crawling, wiggling or sleeping inside the enclosure are the puppies, Lola, Larson, Lexi, Lucy, Lamar, Leland, Layton and Lindon.

“It’s all fun and games until someone poops on the piano,” Schwagger said. “There is always housework to do.

Although they may not look like it now, the puppies will learn more than 30 commands during the next stage of training before being selected into more specialized programs for their future owners, Williams said.

“And that’s when we decide what these dogs are supposed to do,” Williams said. “Are they really going to be perfect for a child? Will they be perfect for an adult in a wheelchair? Or maybe some of our most energetic dogs would participate in our auditory or post-traumatic stress disorder program for veterans, Williams said.

By the end of their training, dogs will know over 40 commands and be able to pick up objects from the floor, alert their owner to danger signs like sirens and open doors. The fully trained dogs will be worth $50,000, but will be given to their future owners free of charge, as a contribution from Canine Companions through grants and donations to their organization.

And after her fifth litter for Canine Companions, Velma will belong to Ash and Marc, living out her days as a pet. Which is even better than puppies.

“Becoming a Breeder Guardian means we get Velma,” Ash said. “She knows how to learn, so I had so much fun teaching her new things. She’s great in public and she’s just the most amazing part of our family.

Contact Chase Hunter at chase.hunter@sonomanews.com and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.



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