4,000-Hour Training: Puppy to Service Animal

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A Canine Companions service dog bonds with his human. Photo courtesy of Canine Companions.



Everyone knows that dogs can be some of the best friends and companions out there. But Margot Bennett knows that a special dog, with the right training and temperament, can be pure magic when matched with the right person. 

Bennett, who trains puppies with the local branch of Canine Companions, a national service dog training organization, recognized the power of this magical connection years ago when she brought her own dog, Brisco, to a classroom to read with kindergarteners. 

She had trained Brisco as an AKC-certified therapy dog and had been volunteering with him throughout the Triangle, helping North Carolina State University students de-stress during finals, cuddling with residents at senior centers and cheering up patients in hospitals. 

That morning, after Brisco had patiently listened to child after child read to him, Bennett noticed that the dog was sitting particularly close to a little girl who was whispering, her face right up against his ear. 

Bennett was startled to see the child’s teacher watching with tears running down her cheeks. The girl, she told Bennett, was selectively mute: It was the first time she had ever spoken in the classroom. 

That, says Bennett, was an “aha moment.” She wanted to know what else a puppy with the right training could accomplish if its job perfectly suited its personality. That’s when she found Canine Companions.

Canine Companions relies on volunteers to raise its carefully bred puppies from age 8 weeks to 18 months. It’s a big job. In addition to providing the usual love and support pets need, volunteers also commit to teaching the puppies a list of 30 commands, attending two training sessions per month and writing monthly reports describing the dog’s progress and personality. 

All that, and then they must say good-bye as the puppy embarks on a 6-month period of intense training at the Canine Companions training center before being matched. 

Only certain people are cut out to be service puppy raisers, and Bennett is one of them.“It’s always a gut punch,” she says, of watching a beloved puppy move on. “But seeing the outcome, and the difference these animals make turns it into a celebration.” 

She’s raised more than 11 puppies over the last 25 years. “Every dog has a different personality,” she says, “and somehow Canine Companions always matches them with the perfect person.” Ely, her puppy who loved to cuddle, was matched with a woman who had a joint disorder. Barley, a patient people-lover, is now a facility courthouse dog who sits beside kids in the courtroom and helps them find their voices. 

Just as not every person is cut out to be a puppy raiser, not every puppy is cut out to be a service dog. “Only 50% of the puppies make it through the special training period,” says Danielle Boggs, a trainer and Canine Companions area representative. 

Puppy raiser extraordinaire Margot Bennett gives service dog Felix a congratulatory hug at his graduation/matching ceremony in February. Photo courtesy of Margot Bennett.

She explains that once an 18-month-old is checked into the training center, qualities show up that might have been overlooked during their puppyhood—low impulse control, for example, or anxiety. “The best service dogs are absolutely even-keeled, have a good work ethic, enjoy the work and really love people,” says Boggs.

Among the people with whom Canine Companions has successfully matched service animals is Debra Johnson of Raleigh, a long-time exec at companies like Nortel and Selectron. She had to put her career aside a decade ago when her mobility and balance were affected by a genetic disorder. She started relying on a wheelchair and applied for a Canine Companion service dog in 2019. She finally made it to the top of the wait list in 2021. 

Johnson spent ten days at Canine Companions’ Florida training center learning commands and working with various dogs before being matched. The organization prides itself on providing its dogs free of charge to applicants, including accommodations for the week spent at the training center. 

“By day five or six, I started to see the same couple of dogs over and over,” says Johnson, “and then it was just me and Storm.” She needed a dog who would be strong enough to open doors and cabinets for her using a “tug strap,” so she wasn’t surprised that Storm, a hefty golden lab, got the job. “We graduated together,” she says. 

Now Storm is with her 24 hours a day, helping with everything from maneuverability and managing belongings to bridging social gaps. “Being in a wheelchair is very different,” says Johnson. 

“People avoid meeting your eye. They often assume that because your body is damaged, your brain is damaged too. Now, when I’m out with Storm, people will stop and ask me about him or compliment him. He makes people curious and puts them at ease.” She pauses, and then adds: “He has absolutely changed my life.” 

Sadly, these dogs are not immune from the same accidents and illnesses any dog might experience. Last November, Apex, Bennett’s 5-month-old puppy-in-training, came down with a virus and passed away. 

“He was only 5 months, but you could tell he was going to be a gem,” says Bennett, still very emotional about the loss. In Apex’s honor, she has started a fund, hoping to raise enough to help Canine Companions cover the cost of training a service dog.  

When asked if she’s now taking a break from puppies after her experience with Apex, she laughs. “Within a week of Apex’s passing, I told them I was ready for a new puppy,” she says. The Canine Companions community responded right away, creating a cross-country network to transport her new puppy, Tupelo, from the breeder in Santa Rosa, California, to Cary.

Bennett believes the stories of dogs like Storm and Apex and the people they love is worth sharing, so starting with the story of Brisco, Bennett has written a series of children’s books, “Tails of Dogs Who Help.”

“I want to show these are real dogs, so the books are illustrated with actual photographs,” says Bennett. “And I’ve got the dog narrating the story so you get the dog’s point of view.” 

Each book focuses on a different kind of working dog—a guide dog, a therapy dog, a service dog—and Bennett includes answers to some frequently asked questions, including the perennial favorite: How does a person with a guide dog clean up after the dog?  

For that answer, and more, check out Bennett’s book series. Bennett donates all proceeds from these self-published books to dog training organizations, including Canine Companions.  

Visit 5 West Magazine for more feature stories. 

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