John and Dianne Bittikofer have been training future service dogs for over a decade, ever since observing the interaction between a person with a disability and her service dog during a church service.
"Somebody brought a dog to our church service," Dianne Bittikofer said. "I was fascinated by how well it behaved. That's what sparked the interest.'
That initial spark in 2001 set the Bittikofers on the path to being volunteer puppy raisers for the Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) program, founded in 1975 and based in Santa Rosa, California.
Mirror photo by?Cory Dobrowolsky
John and Dianne Bittikofer of Huntingdon walk their full-blooded Labrador Retriever, Aurora, along?Clover Creek in?Williamsburg.
"Right now we are training No. 10," Dianne Bittikofer said, referring to their current pup, Aurora.
The dogs the Bittikofers train are shipped from California at two months of age to the regional center in Delaware, Ohio, where they are claimed by their raisers, Bittikofer said. Puppy raisers pay the puppies' expenses while training them.
The Huntingdon couple attends workshops and view videos and read a manual instructing them in training procedures.
"We start with basic commands, then training classes," Bittikofer said.
An important aspect of this early training is socialization.
"They go out in public where they can interact with people," she said. "At six months of age, they wear an actual cape (identifying the dogs as service dogs in training) and go to church, restaurants and the park."
John Bittikofer said the couple has the dogs from two months of age until 16 to 18 months of age, during which time the puppies attend local training sessions, as well. When the Bittikofers have fulfilled their roles as puppy trainers, they take the dogs back to the regional training center where the animals receive six to nine months of more in-depth training from professional trainers.
Only 40 percent of dogs that are trained make it through the program, because dogs with behavioral or temperament issues cannot be effective service dogs.
Dianne Bittikofer said the dogs work at different levels of assistance. Service dogs provide one-on-one care, such as helping with daily tasks, to individuals with physical disabilities. Skilled companion dogs typically work with adults and children who have developmental, cognitive or physical disabilities in tandem with a facilitator such as a parent or spouse. Hearing dogs alert people with hearing difficulties to life sounds, and facility dogs are taken to work by individuals who work with special needs individuals in a variety of settings.
The puppies the Bittikofers train are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers or a mixture of both. The couple trains one dog at a time as recommended by the program.
"They say you should only have one dog under a year of age at a time," Dianne Bittikofer said.
The couple admits to getting attached to the puppies.
"They are working dogs when they need to be, but they can be pets, too," Dianne Bittikofer said.
The affection they feel for the puppies makes the inevitable separation painful, but the Bittikofers gain satisfaction in knowing the pups will make life better for the people they'll someday serve.
"We cry our tears, and we move on," Dianne Bittikofer said. "The dog we have right now is a real sweetheart. It's not about us, though."
Bittikofer said the trainers have the opportunity to attend a graduation ceremony at the regional training center. At the ceremony the Bittikofers get to see the individuals the dogs will be paired with.
That, the couple says, makes it all worthwhile.