Covered In Love

Covered In Love: Our Experience With Canine Companions for Independence

The application has been filled out and it sits on my desk for close to a year. It is repeatedly buried by bills and then excavated as I pay the bills and file them away. It surfaces. I ignore it. Sometimes it feels like we might be biting off more than we can chew. Just, ask anyone and they’ll agree that Aaron and I already have our hands full.

Lucy has been struggling; it’s been two years of really unpleasant behavior. There is crying in school, outbursts at home, scratching, biting, swearing and resisting transitions. We’ve come to suspect that Lucy’s cerebral palsy may be the real culprit. As we meet parents of kids that have CP they share many similar stories, debilitating anxiety, uncontrollable outbursts.

So, the application sits on my desk another day, another week, and another month.

I do a presentation in Sacramento, California. Nancy coordinates the event and takes us to lunch afterwards. Nancy’s service dog, Whisper, is by her side during the event and at lunch.

Over lunch I tell Nancy about Lucy’s fear of dogs, how every time a friend calls to invite Lucy over for the first time she asks two things,
“Mom, do they have stairs?”
“Mom, do they have a dog?”

Being in a wheelchair, if a dog jumps up on her, licks her, sniffs her, or puts their open mouth near her… she is helpless. She can’t just turn around and walk away. She can’t push a dog off. When dogs bark she flinches, she jumps.

I’m not a dog person, never have been. I secretly believe most dogs want to bite me.

But… Whisper… Whisper is just that, quiet and almost invisible! Whisper doesn’t sniff, bark, or jump. At the restaurant Whisper doesn’t give Nancy the “you’re eating and I’m not” stare. Whisper is quiet under the table and doesn’t even seem interested in dropped food. Whisper doesn’t take a potty break unless given a command. Whisper knows more than 40 commands.

Now, I’m fascinated. This seems like the perfect dog! Nancy agrees that Whisper is the perfect dog for her. They had been pre-matched through Canine Companions for Independence. I catch a glimpse, a little slice, of what having a service dog in our family might actually be like. I’m intrigued by Whisper… I actually like Whisper!

After lunch, we walk back to our car. Before leaving, I hug Nancy and say, “Thank you so much! I’m mailing in our application as soon as I get home.” Nancy encourages us to do it and she promises that we won’t regret it. I do my best to believe her.

A Team of Three
Within a few weeks of popping that application in the mail, we get a phone call from Canine Companions for Independence in Oceanside, California. They’ve reviewed our application. We’ve passed the first step of the process and they are calling to set up a phone interview!

On our phone interview we’re nervous and not quite sure how a service dog can help Lucy. We find out that since Lucy is not 18, she won’t hold the leash. This means that a service dog doesn’t free up our hands, it ties up one hand! I try to fathom pushing Lucy’s wheelchair, managing a dog AND signing to Leah. Hmmm. We find out that the dog can’t go to school with Lucy and some of her hardest times are at school. Hmmm.

The Skilled Companion team is made up of three- the dog, the recipient (Lucy) and the facilitator (myself or Aaron) and that team can be certified to go in public, on airplanes, in restaurants… anywhere really, as long as it is a team of three.

I’m still not sure what a service dog will DO for Lucy. If we are right there… and we always are, we can pick up dropped items, and we can open doors. Are we really going to ask a dog to do that? Seems superfluous. In the interview we mention Lucy’s difficulty with transitions and how even though we fought for her to attend public school, with socialization in mind, her behavior was isolating her socially.
Our interview ends. Aaron and I look at each other confused. Was that good? Was that bad?

A few weeks go by and we receive another call from Oceanside, California. Every time they call, I get emotional, confronted, excited, nervous, hopeful, my eyes fill with tears. I see the number on my phone and scream, “AAAAAHHHH!!! YOU GUYS, IT’S CCI!!!!” Everyone gathers around to see what it is they have to say. This time they say that we are invited to come for a face-to-face interview in December! We will work with dogs, learn about the next steps in the process, and share what we hope our family can gain from this new Companion.

I book the flights, car and hotel room. Our interview falls on the weekend of Leah’s 15th birthday. We make a vacation of it- and decide to squeeze in a trip to Sea World, perfect!

It’s December, we pull up to the CCI campus and my eyes fill with tears. Geez! Why am I so emotional? We unload and check in, meet the group of other hopefuls and get a tour of the campus.

The Fam

We spend part of the day in lectures. We learn the command sequence that facilitators use with the dogs and we practice the sequence and corrections on “carpet dog” not a real dog.
Then, they bring in real dogs. Aaron volunteers to go first. He loves Labradors.

Aaron at CCI

Since he goes first, I have to go second. I’m nervous, and I give the dog a correction before the dog has a chance to execute my command. I take a breath and remind myself to have realistic expectations. I get another chance and do better. I just don’t want to blow this for Lucy, if it really is an option to get a dog placed with us, with her. I praise the dog and it’s real praise, I’m SO happy that the dog actually sits when I ask it to sit.

The day ends with our face-to-face interview. In some ways it feels like we are designing our dream dog… “We would like a dog that isn’t aloof, one that will approach Lucy, since she can’t really get to the dog herself.”

It seems a tall request but I have to make it, “No barking?” We are told that is an easy request, none of the dogs bark, not even when the doorbell rings. They only bark on command. I’m baffled.

We request no excessive licking, sniffing or jumping up. This turns out to be an easy request; none of the dogs do that.

“No jumping on furniture” Done! The dogs will not get up on anything without a command telling them to do it.

I imagine the future episodes of doggy-doo tracked in the house. No, the dog won’t go to the bathroom unless you give the command, they are always on leash, so you just pick it up immediately. Really? No “landmines” tracked in from the yard?

We are now clear what the dog won’t do. But what will this dream dog do for our family? Maybe, it will be that missing piece that eases transitions? Perhaps it will become a built-in best friend? Will Lucy’s focus be on the dog rather than on her fears when we are out and about? Will people talk to Lucy about her dog, “Is that your dog?” rather than talk to me about Lucy, “Why is she in a wheelchair?” Any one of those might make a difference.

Aaron asks the final question, “Why would you place one of these amazing, highly trained animals with us? We can do all of the tasks for Lucy, I mean, we already do. We would just hate to take one of these dogs when that might mean that an adult or someone else who could really use it misses out or has to wait longer.” (We’ve already been told that the wait could be a year or longer.) The Instructor interviewing us smiles and says, “Lucy is absolutely a qualified recipient. The Skilled Companions meet a different need than a Service Dog. You aren’t taking anything away from anyone else.”

And that is it. We pack up. Say our goodbyes and watch Shamu splash around.

Lucy at Seaworld

If we pass this step we will eventually be invited to Team Training; a two-week course where we live on campus and are trained to work with the dogs. We are told that we will not be called unless there are two potential dogs pre-matched with us, that’s why the wait can be a year or more.

“AAAAHHHHH!!!!! YOU GUYS, IT’S CCI!!!!!!” I’m in the car with Lucy and Leah, headed to Lucy’s swim lessons. I turn off the radio and everyone gets quiet. “Hello?”

“Hi, this is Becky at Canine Companions, we are calling to invite your family to Team Training for two-weeks in August.”

“Really? Really? Ok…. let me check our calendar and I will get back to you.”

Sometimes I fear what my calendar has to say. The calendar shows the first week of the two is scheduled for Camp Attitude– a week long camp created for children with disabilities, in Foster, Oregon… and the second week ends with my Signing Time concert in Boston.

Ok. Family Conference!
We sit down and discuss both options and decide we should take a vote.

“All in favor of going to Camp Attitude in Oregon?
One vote.

“All in favor of CCI in California?”
Three votes.
The votes will remain anonymous;)

I call Camp Attitude and cancel our spot. I call CCI and let them know we are coming. Lucy starts crying, “I don’t want to go! I don’t even want a dog!”

“Lucy,” I say, “it’s okay, it’s okay. I know you’re nervous. I am too. Listen, we can go and if it’s not right for us, we can choose not to have a dog. That’s part of the design. We go. We learn. We make a choice. But, remember, we’ve never had a dog pre-matched to our family. We’ve never had a dog that is trained like this. If we don’t go, we won’t ever know. If we go, we can be free to make a choice based in reality, rather than a choice based in a reaction, or an assumption and fear.”

She agrees.

We pack and drive to Oceanside, CA the first week of August.

As we pull into the parking lot of the CCI Campus, I’m overcome with emotion again! Seriously?

“This is real, you guys. This is real! We are here. We are in Team Training!!!”

We park, and Lucy informs us that she is NOT coming in. “Ok,” Aaron says, “whenever you are ready.” We’re pretty sure that at some point in the next two weeks she will choose to get out of the car. We unpack and go to our dorm room. It’s bigger than we imagined. We have a private bathroom, a bed, a hospital bed and a blow-up mattress and there’s still plenty of room for Lucy to maneuver her wheelchair. Sure enough, in a matter of minutes Lucy rolls in and our girls take off to explore.

Welcome Colemans

They discover two refrigerators in the kitchen; one filled with cans of soda. They are thrilled. Aaron and I get the full report from Lucy, “Mom, there’s Fanta and root beer and Dr. Pepper and even Cherry Coke, your favorite!”

Leah discovers a library of movies on VHS. The girls are excited to watch them all. There’s Apollo 13, Big, Forrest Gump, Castaway, and more. They start an unofficial Tom Hanks movie marathon.

Lucy and Leah come back and excitedly tell us that in the training room there are 12 dog crates with pink or blue nametags. We sneak in and read the names: Topper, Huntley, Waddie, Malvern, Wilona, Talia, Kong, Janessa, Leann, Donahue, Leon… hmmm, we discuss which names we would prefer NOT to have to call out for the next 8-plus years of our lives. (Malvern and Wilona top the list) We’ll start our training in the morning. It’s 9am-4pm daily. We’ll have Sunday off.

The following day we have lectures. We practice the command sequences. We practice with carpet dog. We learn so much about dog behavior and human behavior.

Breakfast and lunch are provided almost every day. Volunteers come in and feed the eight hopeful recipients and their families, and the whole staff.

After lunch the real dogs are brought in. CUTE! CUTE! CUTE!
Really? We are pre-matched with one of these awesome dogs? We look them up and down.

Day 1 CCI

We “ooooh and ahhhhh.” Aaron and I strategize coat colors and try to figure out what color we most prefer in shedding. (We did ask if we could get a dog that doesn’t shed… they all shed.)

We are told to try not to get attached and to try not to get our hearts set on a certain dog. The instructors bring the dogs around and we meet them. We are excited and nervous. Now, we work with the dogs. Leah keeps a secret tally, tracking the dogs that Aaron and I work with. We try to sort out which ones we might be pre-matched with.

The next day we work with more dogs, Leah keeps track. There’s one dog that I fall in love with, but I do my best not to get attached. She’s cute. She’s so white! According to Leah’s tallies we’ve worked with her most. It’s Wilona. Yes, one of the names we had originally said, would not work for us, and now it didn’t matter. She was Wilona, Willow, Willy, Wilsy and Wil. We pretend not to be super excited every time we work with her. Leah and Lucy do their best to suppress grins and giggles of joy. We try not to look disappointed when we work with another dog.

The third day of Team Training is when we are officially pre-matched with a dog. Everyone arrives to class on time. We anxiously await the announcements. They start with Lucy. “Lucy Coleman, you are pre-matched with…. WILONA!” They bring Wilona over to us and hand us the leash. I’m crying and smiling. Aaron has tears in his eyes and he roughs up Wilona’s fur. Lucy grins and buries her face in Willow’s neck. Willow licks Lucy twice and sits down by our feet. Leah has happy tears streaming down her face and signs, “I can NOT believe this is happening!” True. It is unreal.

She's ours

We learn so much. Day after day we work with Wilona. She stays in our room. The first few days I watch her with an eagle eye.
Is she going to get into the garbage? Nope.
Is she going to have an accident on the floor? Nope.
I take her out to toilet hourly, just in case. Wilona sniffs the grass, and then looks at me like, “really? I just went.”
Is she going to jump up on the beds? Nope. Not unless we say, “JUMP”.
There is no barking, even when we say “SPEAK” she looks at us warily, as if to ask “are you sure?”

Day after day, night after night, she’s a perfect angel. At some point we realize that Lucy has only had one outburst in almost two weeks. We are living in a new place. We are surrounded by new people and eight dogs… and Lucy is doing great!

Lucy and Wilona

We tell Willow to JUMP up on Lucy’s bed. Lucy falls asleep with one hand on her dog. Lucy falls fast asleep and doesn’t ask us to “snuggle”. Our daughter hasn’t fallen asleep without her nightly snuggle for 12 years. To our amazement, Lucy sleeps through the night. Our daughter has not regularly slept through the night in her whole life!

Sleepy Girls

We are in class until 4pm daily, and then we head to the beach. Aaron takes photos of sunsets… Leah, Lucy and I photo-bomb his really beautiful pictures.

Sunset Plus 3

Time flies and we are coming up on our final tests and graduation day. Every day we have quizzes on what we’ve learned. We practice with the dogs in restaurants, at the harbor, the mall and K-mart.

At The Pier

Aaron walks in our room one evening to find me snuggled up on Lucy’s bed with Willow. “Now, that is something I never thought I’d see in my entire life!” he says.

We play with Wil. We wrestle her. We play fetch. We brush her fur and brush her teeth. We clean her ears. I use a Dremel to file her nails. She never bites. I relax. “Mom” Leah says cautiously one afternoon, “you are covered in dog hair!!”
“No, Leah, I am covered in LOVE!” …And I am, I’m covered in love.

On graduation day we meet the amazing family that voluntarily raised Wilona for her first year-and-a-half. They gave her the groundwork, training and love to actually fulfill the job she was born to do. Only 20-30% of the dogs born and trained for this actually get placed as Service Dogs. We have brunch with her Puppy Raisers and they give us a book with photos of Willow’s first year and a half. When we come up on stage for graduation, they tearfully pass Wilona’s leash to Lucy. We tearfully accept. Wilona is officially Lucy Coleman’s Skilled Companion.

It’s amazing how much love, time, and dedication go into each one of the Canine Companion dogs. It’s amazing how much time, devotion and training goes into each family and recipient. Canine Companions is a not-for-profit organization, privately funded by donations. We paid for the gasoline to drive from Utah to California. We bought a few dinners. We bought a crate. Everything else, was given to us, everything else; leashes, collars, food bowls, a huge bag of dog food, toys, brushes, shampoo, toothbrush, poultry flavored toothpaste, a place to stay, meals and training… given to us. It almost seems too much.

Wilona has now been with us for eight months. The difference in our entire family is ridiculous. I never could have imagined that a dog would give us so much. I think back to those early interviews, our concerns and the question of what a dog could provide for Lucy, for us. Now I know why no one could answer that… it’s because there are no words to describe it.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so hopefully here’s a glimpse that communicates at least a tiny bit of the joy, peace, and love that our family found, in what seemed the most unlikely of places, our Canine Companion, Wilona Coleman.

Looks Like Love

Wanna Play?

First Day of School

At the Hospital

In the Car
Snow Day Wilona_0039

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About Rachel Coleman

The opinions and late night musings published on this blog are Rachel de Azevedo Coleman's alone, and are not ever intended to represent the opinions and sentiments of any organization or product that Rachel is, was, or will be associated with. Rachel Coleman is the creator and Emmy-nominated host of Signing Time!, the children's American Sign Language vocabulary building series. She is also the creator and host of Baby Signing Time, Rachel & the TreeSchoolers, and Rachel & Me. Rachel now serves as the Executive Director of the American Society for Deaf Children, a 501c3 nonprofit established in 1967 by parents of deaf children. ASDC is the American Sign Language organization for families who are raising deaf children. Motivated by her child, Leah's deafness, Rachel has spent the last 18 years creating ASL products to help bridge the communication barrier between hearing and signing communities. In 2006 Rachel founded the Signing Time Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to putting communication in the hands of all children of all abilities. In 2014, the Signing Time Foundation launched a 50-Lesson online ASL curriculum called "Sign It: ASL Made Easy" that is available free-of-charge to families with deaf or hard of hearing children ages 36 months and under. Apply at For those who do not qualify to receive Sign It ASL for free, they can find it for purchase at very reasonable rates on Rachel and her husband, Aaron, live in Salt Lake City Utah. They are parents to Leah who was born profoundly deaf, and is now a senior in college at NTID/RIT in Rochester, NY. They are also parents to Lucy who has spina bifida and cerebral palsy, and recently graduated high school. In 2010 the Colemans were joyfully reunited with Rachel's daughter Laura. Rachel is proud to be Laura's birth mom. Laura was placed for adoption as an infant in 1992 when Rachel was 17 years-old.

175 thoughts on “Covered In Love

  1. Rachel,
    I am a puppy raiser for CCI, and have tears streaming down my face. Thank you so much for sharing your story – it means the world to me and is so encouraging. Whenever someone tells me that they could never give up a puppy, I will think of this post. Every second of puppy raising and every goodbye is worth it to read stories like this from your family!

    • Hannah,
      I am so glad you found this. We plan on Puppy Raising when the time is appropriate. CCI is extraordinary, I really hope to help raise awareness about this great organization. Our experience was and still is amazing.

  2. What a beautiful story, thank you so much for telling it. It definitely needs a tissue alert. We are raising our 7th CCI puppy and this post will be bookmarked to read when it’s time to send our current pup off to CCI college. In fact I might just print it out and hand it everyone who asks me “how can you give them up?”. (Me shoving the paper at them) “THIS is how!” I will never look at my dog-hair covered shirt the same again. Warm thoughts to your family, 2 and 4 legged.

    • Thank you Vanessa,
      really- thank you for loving, caring for and training 7 CCI pups. Yes, you are welcome to direct people here or print it out, we love making a difference and it sounds like you do too

  3. Amazingly perfectly written!! Kylie is one of your biggest fans and she just got her service dog from CCI in Oceanside this past Feb. You put into words exactly our journey, they are an amazing organization that changes lives. Stasha has changed our family also and I’m pretty sure she knows every word to the silly pizza song too!

    • Kelly, congrats on the newest, four-legged, member of you family. You reminded me, I’m sending an entire Signing Time library to CCI this week. I figure it’s a small “thank you” and I imagine many of the recipients of Skilled Companions will get good use out of them.

      • So I just tucked Kylie into bed and told her Lucy got a CCI doggy….she thought a minute then said, “maybe Rachel will write a song!” So cute
        CCI will be lucky to have a full set, I would imagine many of the kiddos would be thrilled! I know we brought our set with us to watch every night at bedtime!

  4. Hi Rachel,

    A friend sent me this link tonight to read. I am one of Whispers puppy raisers and I was very moved by this story! Of course I cried and laughed but mostly remembered why I raised 4 puppies ( 3 graduated ) and I have have one with me now that had a change of career. I am so happy for you and your family! Thank you so much for sharing, made my year so far!

    • I LOVE this CCI community!! I had no idea how close-knit, connected and loving you ALL are! Of course it makes perfect sense. It is just as fun to make the Puppy Raiser connections as it is to make fellow recipient connections! When we bump into other service dogs from our training, we jump up and down for joy:) Whisper really did make the difference for us. I got to see Nancy and Whisper after we got Willow and I was performing when they came in and my eyes filled with tears. So thank YOU for being part of our story and journey. It’s one big happy CCI community and we LOVE it

  5. Your words painted the journey of emotions we too went through at each step of the process with CCi (graduating along with ^your last poster, Kelly.) Long before that, when our son was very little and we were told he might never speak with complete words, we watched Signing Time daily & it was a bright spot in our otherwise therapy-filled days. Thank you. We love CCi and our perfect match too 🙂 God Bless!

    • Candy,
      After a few days in Team Training one of the other families came up to me and said quietly, “We know who you are. We don’t think our daughter has recognized you yet, but she LOVES you!” We were also told that a couple of staff members were a little star struck, which I swear is so odd to me. LOL
      I am so glad that Signing Time has made a difference for you. And congrats on your perfect pup

      • Congrats to you as well! When I told him your family received a CCi miracle pup at the TT just prior to ours he was over the moon 🙂

  6. OK, I know I tweeted you earlier, but I wanna say it on here too. I am so, so happy for you guys. Lucy is growing into a beautiful young lady who has already begun to assert her independence through that dog and I can tell, just from the pics, that she is SHINING up a storm. Congratulations, sweet pea! 🙂

    I’m still trying to convince my parents, but one day it will happen. LOL!

    • Ashley,
      It’s so worth it! If you need help going from being seated to standing, you can actually brace yourself on your dog. That would be something you would want to request. Aren’t you closing in on age 18? (hint hint) Thanks for staying on me about writing this! Have your parents read it;)

      • I will be 19 on the 27th of May! Off by a hair. 🙂 I’ve been wanting a tattoo, but if I can convince my mom I need the application filled out, I would honestly be satisfied. Let’s just say I’d make a pretty darn good attorney.

        • Oh my gosh Ashley:) Pick your battles, right? Tattoo or Canine Companion. You crack me up. Willow pushes the push plate to open doors for Lucy (that’s the PUSH command and it’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen). She picks up things that Lucy drops (the GET command) and delivers them to Lucy’s hand (not an easy task for a girl with CP) and Wil won’t release the item from her mouth until she knows Lucy has a grip on it (that’s the GIVE command) You never drop things do you?;) The VISIT command is where Willow just rests her cute little head in Lucy’s lap. She has at least 40 commands and even knows her left from right!

  7. What a wonderful story! We are fortunate enough to have a CCI dog who was 3 months shy of graduation when they found she has a heart arrhythmia and could not complete the program. We are friends of the people who raised her so we had met Hoya at a restaurant while she was being trained and were able to adopt her with their blessing. She has been with us since February of this year. She requires medication 2 times a day and the vets assure us that she should live a long life if monitored and medicated. Hoya is such a joy! She is absolutely the most amazing dog…no jumping, barking, begging, licking…just a wonderful companion with a huge heart! We also have a 7 year old golden who isn’t as well behaved 🙂 He loves her too 🙂 These dogs are truly wonderful! People have asked us “What do these dogs really do for people? They aren’t like seeing eye dogs or anything.” Now I will be prepared – with your family’s story. It is so touching how much she has changed your lives and the life of your daughter especially. I know our little girl adores Hoya – they really are more than a helper dog…they are companions…friends 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing your story. I cried all the way through 😉 So happy for you all!

    • Erin, that is great that you were able to give Hoya a home. You are right it’s all the stuff that everyone considers typical dog behavior that I was worried about- our dog doesn’t whine, scratch, sniff, beg or bark. I had never seen anything like it! Congrats to you too

  8. It is so heartwarming and fun to see you all (especially you, Miss Lucy) with Willow and that dream complete!!! We loved reading about your whole experience – our CCI is awesome and the matching process incredible. We are excited to share this experience with you. Now we must have some puppy play dates!!- love you guys!! Amy, Andy, Sarah, Sam, and Lolo!

    • Amy, thank you for walking/talking me through the process:) You were consistently my 2nd call (yes, I called Aaron first) every time something happened with CCI over that year+. Thanks for going first! I don’t think I would have done it if I hadn’t been able to get every question answered. Thank you Sam and Lolo!

  9. Rachel-
    Thank you SO much for this post. I was one of the 40+ puppy raisers sitting in the audience in August of last year getting ready to turn in my fourth puppy to advanced training. Listening to your husbands testimony and your beautiful song tribute to you daughters and the experience-well it was an experience I will never forget. I, along with the other PRs who have left comments here very commonly get asked how could I give up a puppy after a year and a half. It’s because of families like yours. Another common response I get when out in public with my pup or when I am manning the CCI booth at an event is my child’s special needs are already a handful – how can this dog help us? If you don’t mind, I too would like to print this post and keep it in our “booth in a box” so we can refer to it when we get asked that. Take care and many more puppy licks and blessings to come to you and your beautiful family!

    • Bet, you can absolutely share this with any and everyone that it would make a difference with! Like I said, I was sure my hands were full! Signing with Leah, pushing a wheelchair and managing a dog!! Sounded like a nightmare:) But I only had experienced “normal” dogs LOL – not our SUPER-DOG!

  10. Absolutely enjoyed reading your story as you took us all the way through, from considering the application to your new normal of life with Wilona in it. I’m joining in with my other CCI puppy raiser friends here in saying Thanks for sharing this journey with all of us. It means more than you may realize to a puppy raiser-hearing these first hand stories. Congrats on your Skilled Companion Team and I wish you the best. I’m sure there are many others who would also appreciate your words; I shared your blog post on my FB page today

  11. I could hardly finish reading this blog because of the tears. This sweet Wilona is so dear. What a beautiful change in my Lucy. Her delight with her own doggie is worth everything. Wilona is so well trained that she won’t even roughhouse with me, and I just love dogs, especially Labs.

    Good post, Rachel, and thanks for sharing.

  12. Rachel and family, Thank you for sharing your story. I’d like to introduce myself, I am the Breeder Caretaker for Wilona’s Mom, Gabbie. Wilona was born at my house along with her 7 brothers and sisters. This entire litter was something special. As a BC for CCI, we often lose touch with the puppies as they are sent to regions all over the U.S. Sometimes through the national grapevine that a “family” like CCI creates, we get word that our pup has graduated. Rarely do we get such a personal glimpse into the graduates journey that you have shared with us here. The smile on Lucy’s face warms my heart like nothing else. That smile is why Breeder Caretakers stay up all night greeting each miracle with fresh awe. That smile is why Puppy Raisers pour their heart and soul into a dog that they have to “give up”. That smile is our reward. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

    • Oh Marcee!! It’s like a family reunion! Lucy and Aaron and I all had tears in our eyes as I read your comment out loud just now! We cheered! “GABBIE is your mommy!” LOL You are not kidding, that was a special litter. Waddie, Wilona’s sister was in Team Training with us and she was placed as a Skilled Companion with another little girl who lives here in Utah! When we went back for our certification we met another Skilled Companion from that special W littler- Wonder, who had ALSO been placed as a Skilled Companion with a little boy, whose family had recently moved to CA (the moved from CO I think). Lucy would love to see pictures of Gabbie if that’s at all possible. I love putting all of these pieces together- it’s so much fun! Thank you for helping Wilona from the very start:)
      I think you will enjoy the below post as well, we’ve had our own “lost and found family” I very much understand giving something away and the joy of reconnecting-

      • I am happy to share pictures of Gabbie. I have pictures of baby Wilona to share also. I have stayed friends with Wonder’s PR’s. She turned out to be a super sweet girl too. The fourth SC from that litter is Wathen. Named for and by my Grandson. Gabbie is expecting her fifth and final litter on May 12. Mother’s day. Fitting isn’t it? If you would like, email me at XXXXX and I will send pictures. Thanks for making my Wednesday amazing. 🙂

        • Marcee,
          I would love to also see pictures of baby Wilona. As her Puppy Raisers we never had been given your contact info. Would love (if you are interested) to send you Wilona puppy pictures. Maybe Rachel will share your email with me. Or possibly I can get from Stu or Becca at CCI – but you would likely have to give them the OK to share.

  13. Thank you so much for posting your story! I will be getting my 7th CCI puppy this July after taking a break from puppy raising when I graduated college and worked at the California School for the Deaf. I was also a breeder caretaker for Chandra and have her now (, the friendships I have made from raising puppies and hearing stories like yours makes it all worth it! THANK YOU!!
    Laura & Chandra
    Sacramento, CA

  14. A good family friend who is a CCI puppy raiser posted a link to this post on his facebook wall, and I’m so glad he did.

    We’ve seen the ways our friends lovingly and diligently raise CCI puppies, and have even gotten to help a teeny bit with puppy socializing. My daughter (5 years old) will be thrilled to hear that Lucy has a CCI dog. She kind of feels like she knows you, Alex, Leah and Lucy through watching tons of Signing Time.

    As for me, my heart is so happy for all of you in the precious gift that Willow is to your family. Thank you so much for sharing.

  15. Thank you so much Rachel for sharing your story. Yesterday my wife and I shared your story with our Facebook family and friends to help explain why we’re “puppy raisers”. We just returned from a 3 month “bucket list” RV trip across country, with Jaliffa, our 18 month old CCI puppy (she returns to Santa Rosa next month for puppy college). Since she was with us everywhere we went and everyone wanted to pet her, we were able to be ambassadors for CCI to literally hundreds of people. The #1 question we received was “isn’t it hard to give up the pup?” Of course it’s hard and very emotional, but the joy and happiness that a puppy like Wilona is able to bring to a family like yours makes it truly worthwhile.

  16. What a great story! Its so amazing how a pet can bring so much joy! I did not read all the comments to see if anyone has mentioned this or not. But if u look up Dogs for the deaf , they work specifically to match hearing dogs with deaf and hard of hearing people! They to are a non profit place as well, they strive on volunteers and donations. 🙂 🙂

  17. Hi Coleman family! You may not remember us, we are neighbors of the Yocums, and our 2nd puppy, Breezy was only 3 months old at Lucy and Willow’s graduation. (we have a darling photo that my daughter took of Breezy on Lucy’s lap) You may be happy to hear that the first puppy that we raised (Jojo) graduated 3 months later as a SC Dog with a 10-year-old girl named Katie who lives in Arizona, and who also has CP. We are SO happy to hear that your family’s life with Willow is filled with joy and comfort – THAT is how/why puppy-raisers are able to “give up” the puppies. You see, we’re not really giving them up – we’re just passing along the love. 🙂

  18. What a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing. I stumbled across your blog after we just sent in our application to CCI. I can only hope we will be chosen by CCI and of course a four legged friend. It was wonderful to read about your journey and the CCI process. Hopefully we will be as fortunate.

  19. Hey Rachel,

    I don’t know if you’ve seen this or not, but if you didn’t you MUST:

    A girl and her service dog wear matching gowns at her (their) Master’s graduation. She has spina bifida as well, as says about her dog:

    “Hero has helped me so much through my master’s degree,” she said. “He has gone to every class with me, he has stayed up with me while I write papers and study for exams, he turns on lights for me, pulls me through the snow across campus to make sure I make it to class on time. It was definitely a team effort to get me through graduation.”

  20. Wow. Awesome story. I got emotional every time CCI called too, and was bawling by the end. I’m so happy for Lucy and the whole family. Thank you for sharing.

    And tell Aaron his sunset shot is nothing short of spectacular. I can never capture with my camera what my eye sees. Does he give lessons? 😉

  21. I love how you got the dog with the name you didn’t want. 😀
    I also didn’t know it was such a long process to even qualify for a such a dog. We have a lab, but not trained, just a regular barking, hyper, waiting-for-food-to-fall yellow lab named Jerry. I fear the day he dies because our daughter loves him so much. She has T14Mosaicism and is hard of hearing. I never knew about hearing dogs. She is five now. I now know this might be an option for her when she’s older.

    Thank you for sharing this wonderfully written story. 🙂

  22. I don’t know how I missed this post in April! We love Canine Companions. My brother-in-law had spina bifida, and he had a service dog. Foley was an amazing animal, so sweet and such a good support and friend. I’m so happy for your family that Lucy was able to get Wilona!

  23. Thank you for sharing your story! We had been considering a service dog for our son, who is 5 and also has spina bifida, but didn’t know where/how to start. Your story gave me the push I needed to start the process – I submitted our application to CCI last night! Fingers crossed! 🙂

  24. Coleman Family,
    M’y granddaughter, 10 1/2yr old Makenna Rose with Spina Bifida, is on the list!!! Our family knows all to well what it’s liked to be ‘covered in love’! Already are family of dogs 🙂 but waiting for ‘the call’!
    I’m writing to respond to ‘the dog not allowed at school’ statement. Through Lucy’s IEP, which I’m certain she must have in place, Willow could be added as therapeutic aid/companion necessary to integrate socially which helps academically. It’s a thought though, sounds like Lucy’s behavior has settled since sweet Willow joined the Coleman family.
    Thank you so much for your lovely written blog…keep writing and Stay Calm & Walk the Dog (Willow).
    Our gratitude for your story.
    Hugs to Lucy & Willow & family.
    Marsha aka Garnie (translation Grandma) XOXOXOXO

  25. As a graduate with a service dog this story brought tears to my eyes. I know how much my SD Karilee has changed my life for the better. I appreciate you sharing your familys journey. The pictures of Wil in Lucy’s bed are so special.

  26. It’s waaay early Christmas morning & I just stumbled onto this particular blog of yours. Why you might ask? Well because I’m taking in anything & everything that has to do with CCI! You see a few weeks ago we had our Interview in Oceanside for my daughter Nattie. A few days ago we received that incredible letter telling us we are going to be placed on the waiting list!! I am in tears reading your account because there are several things I can relate to!! I was especially hopeful when I read that your wait was less than a year! I can hardly wait! Thank you for sharing your experience!! You’ve helped make my already joyful Christmas that much more amazing!!

  27. This is a great article. I am in the application process with CCI for a hearing dog. This post will defiantly be helpful as a continue this process. I wish the best of luck to you, Lucy, Leah and of course Willow. I hope Leah gets the chance to get one of these dogs also!

  28. I have enjoyed watching you and your beautiful family on signing time. You have helped my nonverbal girl become verbal. Thanks so much for sharing your story!

  29. We just finished the face to face interview two days ago and my brain is so overwhelmed! I am excited, nervous, emotional, and so very scared! They said we have a very good chance at getting a pup for our son but the thought of rejection scares me! The thought of getting a dog scares me! The whole process scares me! I know this will be life changing for my son though!! Thank you so much for this post, I know it was so long ago but thank you so much!

      • Well!! I have looked for you blog so many times since I wrote that comment! We were approved and now we wait for the call for the 2 week training! We just got asked if we would be able to come to the February class, so we are hopeful! I just re-read your blog and then sent it to some of my family and a friend of mine! It brought me to tears once again! Thank you for sharing your and your family story! I added the facebook page with a bit of our story!
        Tracy –

  30. I am crying… with joy. You are a beautiful writer and your children have been blessed beyond words to have you and Aaron as parents. I am a 6x puppy raiser for CCI and will soon have my 7th puppy to raise. Only 2 have made it through, one as a breeder and the other as a Skilled Companion with a similar story. Your blog was mentioned recently at a Puppy Workshop presented by the Oceanside campus. I am so glad I took down the note to check it out. Sometimes puppy raising in the day-to-day aspect is tedious, time consuming, and oh so repetitive. We deal with so many “unwanted” behaviors of a puppy. However, you have expressed in this beautiful story exactly why it is all worthwhile. Raising these puppies is now in my DNA and I can’t imagine myself not being part of the Canine Companions family. It has been such a pleasure reading your blog and confirming why each time we gladly raise and “give up” our puppies. With hopeful anticipation I am waiting to see how my last puppy will do in advanced training and if they find her that perfect match as they did with Wil. God bless you and your family.

  31. Hi. My name is Rachael. My daughter Mckenzye (“Zye”) is 2 years old. We stumbled across your show Singing Time on Netflix. She absolutely loves it! She is picking ASL so quickly. I just want to say we are so grateful for the show and the fun ways your teach sign language. My daughter is a big fan of you and says “Sign with Rachel!” Every time she see the show pass on Netflix! Thank you 🙂

  32. I got involved with CCI after an equestrian accident landed me temporarily in a wheelchair. Since that day I have become a 5 time puppy raiser and to be able to read something like this is so filling.
    One of the puppies that I raised is currently in Team Training and knowing how exciting that is for a puppy raiser, I can only imagine all of the memories you all get to make in those two short weeks!
    Thank you for sharing your experiences and best of luck to your skilled companion team!

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