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To learn more about Canine Companions for Independence, go to www.cci.org or call 1-800-572-BARK (1-800-572- 2275).

Well-trained dog gives partially paralyzed man fresh independence

Saturday, March 2, 2013 - 12:01 am

Denny Robles has lived an active life, despite being partially paralyzed from a surgery in 1977. All the years he and his wife, Mary, were raising a family, he was able to keep up the house and yard, cook, drive and shuttle the kids while Mary worked.

Two years ago, however, when he broke his good leg, life changed. He had to give up driving. “After that, things went downhill,” he said.

He and Mary relocated from their tri-level house in Ossian to a ranch in Fort Wayne. Unable to drive, Denny was stuck at home while Mary worked.

Then a friend of Mary's suggested Denny might benefit from a service dog. The couple looked into Canine Companions for Independence, an organization that breeds and trains Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and a cross of the two to be assistance dogs.

After a laborious application process that took 18 months and then, at the end of two weeks of hands-on training in November in Delaware, Ohio, Denny and his service dog, Hawkeye II, were officially paired in a graduation ceremony. The three — Denny, Mary and Hawkeye — have been settling in ever since.

Denny calls Hawkeye a “gift from God.”

“I consider him a working dog, but he's a member of the family, really,” he said.

Hawkeye is a 2-year-old, highly trained black Labrador-retriever mix. He is very well-mannered, with a calm disposition. He lies by Denny on the floor until Denny gives him a command.

He is trained to retrieve objects for Denny, such as a dropped remote control. He can carry things in his mouth for Denny, such as a soda or bottle of water. He can open and close most doors and walks slowly beside Denny, who walks with a cane.

But most of all, Hawkeye provides companionship. “One reason I got Hawkeye is he passes a lot of time,” Denny said. “I work with him.”

He has to practice his commands with Hawkeye to keep the dog trained. And the relationship is reciprocal — Denny and Mary have to care for Hawkeye, too.

Canine Companions showed them how to brush him to keep his black coat clean and silky. His teeth have to be brushed once a week, and he's fed twice a day and let out to go to the bathroom.

“He's been a great companion,” Mary said of Hawkeye. She feels better leaving Denny now because Hawkeye's with him.

“It's helped me more emotionally,” Denny said. “He's changed my life completely.”

It takes a special dog and a lot of training to become a Canine Companions assistance animal. Hawkeye was born in California, where the Canine Companions volunteer breeder-caretaker took care of him for eight weeks.

Then a volunteer “puppy raiser” from Indianapolis flew to California and brought him back to Indiana. Hawkeye then spent more than a year with the “puppy raiser,” who taught him basic obedience and socialization.

Hawkeye and the other Canine Companions dogs then spent six to nine months training with professional Canine Companions instructors at one of five regional training centers. Hawkeye was in Delaware, Ohio, which is about 25 miles north of Columbus. The dogs learn more than 40 commands before they are matched with a person with a disability.

While Hawkeye was growing up and being trained, Denny had to fill out a Canine Companions application and get letters from his doctor and physical therapist. They had to go to Delaware, Ohio, for a personal interview. Although it usually takes about two years for an individual to be accepted into the program, Denny got accepted in 18 months.

In November, he and Mary set off for Delaware, Ohio, for two weeks of training. The training and dog are free; all they had to pay for was a motel and their meals.

A group of 12 people with various disabilities worked for two days with 27 dogs as the trainers decided which dogs seemed the best matches for the humans. On the third day, trainers announced the matches. Dogs judged as not cut out for service work go to a good home.

Mary and Denny had worked with Hawkeye some the previous two days.

“We had him mainly picked out,” Denny said. “He seemed to bond with us.”

They got lucky. “When we first realized we were going to get him, both our eyes lit up,” Denny said.

Mary said it was a humbling experience to see how dedicated the Canine Companions staff members were, and how they knew how to work with each individual, regardless of his or her disability.

After the matches, they spent the rest of the time in training, including taking the dogs on field trips to malls and restaurants.

Canine Companions are so well-trained they aren't distracted and won't try to eat food that's dropped on the floor at a restaurant. The Robles say Hawkeye doesn't bark and doesn't chew. When Mary puts his food in a bowl, he waits until she says “release” before he goes over to eat it.

And he's wonderful with their grandchildren.

“He does about everything I need him for,” Denny said. “I'm fully independent with Hawkeye.”