Graduation isn't usually a team sport. (VIDEO)
Graduation isn't usually a team sport.
Usually, it's one student, one diploma.
But last week, at Canine Companions for Independence in Delaware, 12 teams of two - a human and a canine student - graduated after a two-week team training program.
Dembre is Imelda Martz's third companion dog. Martz has spinal muscular atrophy, a neuromuscular disease.
"Team training was very intense and hard work," Martz said of her two weeks working and bonding with her new assistance dog. "The trainers taught me the skills I need to work successfully with Dembre and what I need to do to take good care of him."
Canine Companions was founded in 1975 and has headquarters in Santa Rosa, Calif. Its mission is to enhance the lives of people with disabilities by providing them with carefully bred and highly trained assistance dogs.
The dogs - all Labrador and Golden Retrievers or a mix of the two - are trained to understand and execute roughly 40 commands. They perform routine tasks for their disabled owners that the rest of us take for granted.
"Dembre helps me turn lights on and off, retrieves things that I have dropped, and gives my money to the clerk when I go shopping," Martz said.
In short, Dembre helps Martz navigate the world with as much independence as possible.
Laurel Marks is the development director at Canine Companions in Delaware.
"We differentiate ourselves from other assistance dog organizations by not charging our recipients for their dogs," she said. "What with breeding, training and placement, that's about $45,000 at no cost to the recipient."
Marks said Canine Companions takes that breeding seriously. "The organization has 30 years of genetic code in the dogs to achieve the perfect temperament, intelligence and medically sound bodies it takes to be an assistance dog," she said.
Martz said Dembre's only problem during training was a superabundance of enthusiasm.
"I would give him the command to turn on the light and he would get so excited that after he turned on the light he would turn it right back off," she said. "During training he started to understand better when I would praise him for turning it on and he would no longer turn it off until I gave him the command to do so."
It was, Martz said, pun intended, "one of our many 'light bulb moments'!"
Assistance dogs not only provide convenience, they also provide safety, according to recent graduate Frank Turnage.
"I have cerebral palsy, which causes me to drop stuff. I could pick the stuff up that I drop but I am taking a chance of falling out of my chair and being hurt," he said.
Turnage's dog is named Chloe. He said he was impressed with her ability to understand commands.
Marks said Canine Companions of Delaware - CCI has five regions and Delaware serves the north central region - plans a capital campaign to raise money for an on-site dormitory.
"Right now our clients have to pay out of pocket for a hotel and not every hotel is as accessible as it could be," she said. "We want to build dorms that are completely accessible and that also have a community room and kitchen. This will be a more state-of-art facility."