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Richard Supulveda and his new helper dog Cindy get to know each other a little better.

Canine Support Teams give stability to physically challenged

Sunday, May 28th, 2006
Issue 21, Volume 10.
Nancy Fay

Paul and Roxy have an unusual relationship. They watch TV together. They sleep side by side. Roxy runs ahead to open doors for Paul and stays behind to shut them. If Paul drops something, and he often does, Roxy picks it up and gives it back to him. The two rely on each other for a number of things, but mostly for companionship.

Whatís so unusual about that? For starters, Roxy is a dog.

And Paul Pastizzo, 37, is a quadriplegic. He has limited use of his hands and arms and is confined to a wheelchair. Pastizzoís parents, who are in their 70s, live next door to him. Along with his fulltime caregiver, Dana Acero, they have provided almost all the love and care he needs. Jake, Pastizzoís first support dog, now retired, and Roxy have provided the rest.

The youngest of five brothers, Pastizzo was in the Air Force and engaged to be married when the car he was driving was hit by a drunken driver. The injuries he sustained in the accident have left him permanently disabled. His career was called off. The wedding was called off. He was 27 years old.

Now, 10 years later, Pastizzo was among those fortunate enough to get a support dog earlier this month from Canine Support Teams, a local nonprofit organization that trains dogs to help handicapped people. Carol Roquemore, Chief Executive Officer and Training supervisor, started the organization 18 years ago after she was paired with her own support dog. Roquemore was stricken with polio as a child and has herself been confined to a wheelchair since she was 4 years old.

Roquemoreís organization relies entirely on donations of time and money, both of which she uses to breed, purchase, train and place as many dogs a year as she possibly can. Last year she placed 30 dogs with as many handicapped people ó more than some larger well-funded organizations, she said.

But even 30 dogs a year isnít enough and Roquemore has to carefully weigh each application to determine who has the greatest need and applications are approved accordingly.

"All of our dogs go to people who can show us that they need them," Roquemore said. "There is an interview process after they submit their completed application and provide doctorís reports."

Their waiting list has over 150 people on it and there is nothing they can do about it.

Roquemore does everything she can to meet the needs of her applicants, but she just canít help them all. Some people who otherwise meet the criteria for getting a dog are simply turned away or put on a waiting list for two and a half years or more due to lack of funding and volunteers. Roquemore figures that training and raising the dogs costs about as much as a used car ó $12,000, to be exact. Except for the $200 application fee, the dogs are free to her clients.

Training a dog to help the handicapped is a long, arduous process. It takes two years in all and then they have to train the new owners how to handle the dog. Roquemore says this is the hardest part.

"Dogs are a lot easier to train than people," she said.

Itís not simple and itís not cheap, but this organization can and does change the lives of handicapped people and the publicís perception of them all the time.

How it works

First, you need some puppies. Canine Support Teams has its own small breeding program, but it relies on private breeders to provide most of the puppies. When the puppies reach 8 weeks old, they are placed with volunteer puppy trainers. Puppy trainers, also known as living saints, take the puppies in and care for them as their own.

But thatís not all. The puppy trainers foot the bill for everything the puppy needs, like top quality dog food and veterinary care. They have to attend at least two dog obedience classes and have Advertisement
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to take the puppies on regular outings once they are old enough. Socializing the puppies is a very important aspect of training. Support dogs are held to a higher standard when it comes to how they behave when they are taken out in public. They have to do it and they have to do it a lot.

At 18 to 20 months of age, the puppies are returned to Canine Support Teams for testing and evaluation. Some puppies donít meet the muster and those puppies are placed in a more traditional family setting, whereas support puppies go on to learn to be devoted to just one person.

Once the puppies are declared fit to move on to advanced training, they are then placed in the custody of women in custody at the Chino Institution for Women in Chino, CA, the only prison in the nation that is part of the Prison Pup Program (PPP).

The PPP matches female inmates with the puppies and for the three to four months that follow, the puppies undergo intense training. This is where the puppies learn to do the things that dogs donít ordinarily do, like turning light switches off and on or how to undress a person. For the duration of their stay at the prison, each puppy stays in the cell with its inmate/trainer.

These women volunteer their time and are needed to complete the training of the dogs.

The inmates take the leash from there and the dogs undergo intense training, tailored toward the needs of each applicant. By this time, the crew at Canine Support Team has already matched the puppy with an applicant, so they know exactly what that puppy needs to be taught.

After the puppies complete training, they are returned to the Canine Support Team for evaluation and testing again and then they are given to their new owners, who are required to attend a two-week training program with the Canine Support Team crew.

So, when the folks at the Canine Support Team handed the leash over to Jennifer Bichler, 32, "Maverick" was a fully trained "stability" dog. Bichler, who has multiple sclerosis and suffers from vertigo, has a tough time getting around. She falls a lot and when she does she canít get back up.

Maverick has been trained to make his body so rigid that it acts almost like a piece of furniture, thereby providing the stability for Jennifer to get back up (hence the name stability dog).

When Bichler first applied for a dog, the waiting list was so long that the Canine Support Team allowed her to take on the role of puppy trainer to speed things along. Bichler, with the Canine Support Teamís guidance, was making progress after one year of training, only to have the puppy stolen while she and her family were on an outing.

She was so upset that Bichler waited another year. Finally, she reapplied and the folks at Canine Support Teams got her a dog in record time.

Maverick has settled in nicely at their home in Lodi, CA, with Bichler and her husband, Joshua, and son, Cody. Jennifer is a lot more independent now and feels much safer. In addition to stability training, Maverick is trained to turn the light switch on and off, pick up and return to Jennifer anything she drops, open and close doors and more. Maverick can even get her a prepared lunch out of the refrigerator on those days she is bedridden. He pushes the elevator button for her and he will go potty on command.

The dogs are not officially released to their new owners until both have completed the two-week training course and only then with the promise to adhere to certain guidelines and to return a few times a year for training and evaluation, requirements the new owners say they are happy to meet. "They just want to be sure that things are going well," said Bichler.



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