Just the day before the Canine Companions for Independence Baylor Scott and White Health Kinkeade Campus had been dedicated. On this Saturday, November 7th afternoon, the center would be the scene of the beginning of four unique partnerships and the next step for puppies “entering the professional training” stage of the service dog program.
It would be a graduation and matriculation day filled with cheers and tears by the standing-room-only room of humans that included Baylor Scott and White CEO/President Joel Allison, CCI CEO Paul Mundell, CCI National Board Chair John Miller, philanthropist Jan Rees-Jones, Baylor Animal Assisted Therapy Director Linda Marler and Wounded Warrior CCI teams U.S. Army Ret. Sgt. Steve Blackman with Godley and U.S. Army Ret. Sgt. Brian Boone with Brindle.
This day was a long time in coming. And for such an occasion, it was only right that Federal Judge Ed Kinkeade served as the commencement speaker. He recalled how his beloved dog, Bo, had introduced him to the unique talents of canines working with humans in need. Before becoming one of the Baylor Animal Assisted Therapy program’s teams, Bo had seemed like your typical BFF. Ed told how Bo would get him up in the middle of the night for bathroom break. They would head off to a nearby bridge. One night Bo disappeared across a bridge and came running back alerting Ed that the park’s port-a-potties were on fire. Another night Bo came racing back and jumped into the judge’s arms with 20 horses headed in their direction.
It was through the Baylor program that Ed discovered that Bo made an immeasurable impact in the lives of patients. Researching the subject, Ed came upon the Canine Companions for Independence program based in California. Over the years it had placed more than 4,000 dogs with people with disabilities, both physical and mental.
After three years of negotiations, Ed and the Baylor Scott and White team landed the center. It would not only be the first CCI facility in Texas, it also be CCI’s first association with a hospital. Here Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and crosses of the two breeds would have months of training and vetting after being raised by volunteer puppy raisers. Not all would make it. Each would have to have the temperament, the intelligence and the ability to assist.
In a show of appreciation to Ed, it was revealed that a puppy in the next littler of CCI puppies would be named in his honor. It seems that all the puppies born in a littler share the same first initial. The “K” litter that will include “Puppy Kinkeade” is due to be born within the next month.
But this was more than a graduation day for four teams. It was also a day when the new “recruits” were to be handed over by their puppy raisers to the CCI trainers for their six months of learning. It was gratifying to see the families and individuals, who for 14-16 months had worked and done the preliminary work day-in, day-out, present the dozens of Labs. As one individual said, “I just couldn’t do it. I would be too attached to give them up.”
Still these puppy raisers like Judy Schumpert, who had raised 17 puppies over the years for service, recognized that their dogs were going to serve a greater purpose.
On this day, four such dogs had not only met the incredible requirements, they had bonded with four individuals, each with different needs that the dogs could serve with loyalty, understanding, training and what people call “unconditional love.”
As part of the official graduation, each pooch’s puppy raiser brought their dog to the stage and handed over the leash to the new companion as the crowd applauded and teared up.
As Ed said, “These folks are no longer people with needs or disabilities. They were the people with the cool dogs.”
There was Jaspers V that would help Emma, who has autism and lives with her grandparents. Mabel V would be assisting Sarah by becoming a “courthouse dog” in Marble Falls and work with abused children going through the court system. There are only 100 courthouse dogs in the country.
Pablo VI would help wheel-chair-bound Chelsey. And then there was Vincent III that would be U.S. Army Captain Michael Caspers’ “point man”. Standing perfectly erect in his uniform, Michael was so focused and professional. It was hard to imagine how much his life changed since that day in Afghanistan when on August 24, 2011, he stepped on a pressure-plate IED and lost his right leg below the knee.
Shifting gears, Michael told how Vincent had already started working with him in their two weeks together. It seems that Michael’s prosthetic limb didn’t allow him to know when he stepped on toes. Vincent had already started letting him know with a yelp.
With the sun shining overhead four partners left the Kinkeade Campus for new lives and adventures, while more than a dozen new recruits moved into the shining new kennels to undertake their final step toward a spring graduation.