RICHMOND, Va. -- Canine Companions for Independence (CCI.org) is a national non-profit that breeds, raises, trains and then gives service dogs, free of charge, to those that need them.
I spoke via Zoom Wednesday with Aleeta Lehtinen, the president of the Old Dominion Chapter of CCI along with Bruce Hamon, a Vietnam War veteran who recently received Swain, an assistance dog, to find out more about this extraordinary organization and what we all can do to support them.
Lehtinen says the lab-golden retriever mixes can perform many different services.
“It depends on what you need,” she said. “But the types of dogs that we train are service dogs, skilled companions- so service dogs for children, as well as hearing dogs, facility dogs, and then our newest type, which we actually are just getting in Virginia, is our PTSD dog.”
Lehtinen says these highly trained companions are more than just pets.
“In your general daily life you know what comfort a pet can bring to you,” said Lehtinen. “It's great, but these dogs are trained to do so much more. They can open a door for someone, they can pull out your laundry, they can hear for someone that can't hear. Let's say their phone goes off, they can notify them, if their phone rang or their doorbell, depending on which sound it is they're actually trained to interpret, and notify their handler.”
For Bruce Hamon, an Ashland native, the arrival of Swain has been nothing less than transformative.
“He means that I can go out more often from my condo,” said Hamon. “He means that, to me, that I can feel more comfortable and out in public. One of the most important services he provides for me is waking me up at the very beginning of a recurring nightmare from my PTSD from Vietnam. I have those kind of things sporadically and his job is to wake me up before I get fully into that so it provides me a better night's sleep and not having to deal with that stuff.”
Hamon says CCI has given him more than he could ever repay.
“It's hard to put into words,” he said. “I'm so grateful that this dog has been provided to me and he's just made a huge difference in my life. You know, I used to sit at home and wonder whether I wanted to go out and would become anxious. At times I wouldn't go out and now I feel much more comfortable doing that. And when I get into a major shopping store where there are, I affectionately call them, herds of people, I don't feel like I have to put my back against the wall.”
Hamon says his new dog knows what to do in almost every situation.
“Swain is trained to put himself between me and the people and that gives me a source of comfort,” Hamon said. “It means that my life is much fuller, much more enjoyable. And I'm looking to do anything I can to help get that message out to other people.”
If you are interested in finding out more, check out CCI.org.
“There are numerous ways to help out locally through our chapter,” said Lehtinen. “Our big thing is we actually raise the puppies. So we get these puppies at eight weeks old. And we teach them 30 different commands. So if you want to be a puppy raiser, you can go cci.org and fill out an application to become a puppy raiser. You can also donate money through the website as well. Each year we have a 5K that we do annually in September. But just spread the knowledge, because the more people that know about service dogs, the more people that need them can actually get them.”