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. Oh!!! Such a wonderful story…. what a wonderful, life changing experience!!! A success story all around. I even knew how this ended, and I was riveted at ever turn.

    Thank you so much for sharing your personal journey. You Colemans are amazing and never cease to amaze me. Wonderful, wonderful.

  2. What a GREAT story! I am so glad to hear that Willow has been good for you! I LOVE the smiles on Lucy’s face and all of your smiles! What a GREAT thing for you guys to have! Love it!

    • Amanda, no more tears at the hospital! Wilona is always on Lucy’s hospital bed, waiting for her to “come out” of general anesthesia. It makes a big difference for Lucy no matter what the procedure is

  3. Congratulations on your new family member! Thank you for sharing this wonderful story with us. I have applied for a Hearing Service Dog from Susquehanna service dogs in Harrisburg Pennsylvania. Currently I’m at the top of the list for a hearing dog. I was hesitant at first because I know very little about dogs. It was wonderful to read your story and to see that you shared some of the same hesitancy I had felt. It appears you have found a wonderful companion program and a wonderful companion dog for Lucy. I am so happy for all of you.

    • Thank you! That is exactly what I was hoping for, to answer those hesitancies for those in a similar situation. I really do brush Willow’s teeth LOL- that is a breakthrough for me! Congrats on being at the top of the list. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, Leah is planning on having her application for a hearing dog ready at midnight on her 18th birthday. She can not wait to have one of these highly trained, beautiful, service animals matched to her

  4. I am sitting here crying. Athena Troy, a parent in San Diego, sent me a link to this blog entry. I am so glad you had the chance to spend time with Whisper to see how amazing Canine Companions are, and I am sooooooo glad that this has worked out so well for Lucy and your whole family. Whisper and I send our love to all of you.


    • Nancy, we are forever indebted to you and Whisper. I bet that application would still be on my desk and we would have no idea what we were missing as a family. Whisper is quite the Ambassador for CCI, (you too of course). My mind was blown that an animal could and would behave like that. All of my preconceived notions and fears were settled. Thank you, thank you, thank you! ~Rachel, Aaron, Leah, Lucy & Wilona

  5. I’m not exactly sure why, but the picture of Lucy sleeping with Wilona made me cry. That is just so awesome. I’m so happy you found the perfect dog for your family.

    • I love snapping photos of the two of them snuggling. Lucy sleeps so much better when Willow is with her. We are also to use that (Willow sleeping on Lucy’s bed) as an incentive for Lucy’s behavior.

  6. What a wonderful addition to your beautiful family. When Robert was 7 we decided it was time to get a dog. I looked over all the Humane Society websites and doggie profiles. It was very tough finding a rescue dog when you have young kids. The day we went to Milo Foundation I had my list in hand of the dogs I knew would be perfect for our family. The Volunteer took one look at our family and said you need a “goofy” dog and showed us B.B.. I said “Oh no, I read about him!”. The boys were smitten, Robert changed his name to G.B.(aka Good Boy) and it was the best decision we ever made. DOGS are amazing. Such unconditional love!!! We are so happy for Lucy!!! Love, Teri, John, Robert, Max and G.B.

  7. Wow what a wonderful story & it has really touched me! Thank you for sharing your testimony & I had no idea that they had dogs like this. What a blessing.

    • I don’t know when I first heard about CCI, probably when Leah was little and I found out you have to be 18 for a hearing dog, 18 seemed so far away. Lucy’s friend Sam has a CCI dog, Lolo, and I thought it was cool, but I was still pretty uncertain about the whole thing. There are so many great resources out there for families, children with disabilities and adults with disabilities.

  8. This made me so happy to read! My family (mainly my mom and sister) were puppy raisers for CCI for years! It was so nice to hear the other side of the story. To see the effects is so cool. Congrats to Lucy and the rest of you on your success with Wilona!

    • We have such love and respect for Puppy Raisers. Of course, we think we got the world’s best Puppy Raisers. Would you believe they came and got Wil and took her to their home for a week while we were in Mexico? Seriously, who could we trust more than her Puppy Raisers?

      • We puppy raisers TOTALLY BELIEVE that your PRs came and took care of Wil while you guys were on family vacation. We so appreciate it when a graduate team can take a few moments out of their busy lives to keep us informed about a puppy we’ve raised. So, the opportunity to keep Wil for a whole week I bet they were over the moon!

        • We are Willow’s Puppy Raisers. I cannot begin to tell you the excitement and JOY we felt to be asked to “puppy sit” with Willow. We are FOREVER GRATEFUL to LUCY and her family for giving us this totally OVER THE MOON week. My daughters keep in touch with Lucy and would do absolutely anything for Lucy and her family. We have expanded our family through a dog named Wilona.

  9. Thank you for sharing your journey of becoming covered in love. As a former puppy raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind, this touched my heart.

    The day I returned my guide dog puppy for formal training was filled with emotion, to say the least. To hand over a dog that I had been with me almost every moment, that had taught me so much, that I had fought to bring with me into public places educating those around us about service dogs, and ultimately had filled my life with love, was hard. But given the chance at that point to send her back or keep her, there would be no question I would have still sent her for training, knowing that she was meant for greater things.

    After she was career changed I opted to take her back. Once again she became my buddy. Every new adventure life presented she was there, from attending school with me as I studied to become a veterinary technician, to making multiple moves with me (including cross country away from all my family), welcoming my new husband, then son.

    Yesterday was the one year anniversary of her passing away after a fight with cancer. She was fourteen years, eight months old.

    Reading your story and others like it, leaves my heart grateful for these angels in our lives and my chance to have been a little part of the miracle that is service dogs. Thank you.

  10. So touching! Willow is amazingly sweet and Lucy and her look like a perfect match! That’s funny you kept tallies. I’m sure they could tell you were attached to her 🙂 Our neighbors raise service dogs, yellow and white labs like Wilona. It’s always fun to meet them. I think 1 of their dogs has already passed training. Oh man! I am SO excited for Leah to apply for a dog! That is going to be amazing. And super fun when both dogs meet each other!

    • When I took the photo of Leah and Lucy in front of the crates I set up the camera to catch Wilona in it, because I was struck by something about her. I took the photo and thought, what if that’s the dog we end up with. What can I say, I had a feeling.

  11. Such a wonderful story, I am crying from seeing all the pictures of Lucy smiling. Thank you for sharing. I have a son with Down Syndrome and he loves dogs, he will walk up to any dog, I have to hold him back. We don’t have one because my thinking is like you, so much mess and responsibility. After reading your story I will definitely think about getting a dog. So happy for all of you. Thank you.

    • CCI does place Skilled Companions with children who have Down syndrome. You might check to see the age limit. This dog is not like a “typical” dog:) I think that makes a difference. (CCI) and Wilona makes it easy

  12. What a beautiful tale. I teared up at the photos and the story. I too would be hesitant about taking a dog away from someone who “really” needs it… but sometimes we aren’t able to be fully honest with ourselves about what we need, or perhaps we don’t even know what might be good for us – and so we need others to guide us there. Thank you for sharing this story – it has touched me deeply.

  13. Once again we needed that tissue warning! 😉 You would think by now we would automatically grab some before we even start to read!
    I remember that week in August…we (Cole and I) were also filled with excitement, nervousness, tears of joy, new adventures and new ‘family’!! 🙂 And so happy for Lucy, and all of you to be going to get Willow!! I can’t wait to get to meet her and to see y’all!

  14. I am so proud of Lucy for overcoming what must have been a scary time. But she was brave and willing to try something new. You go, Lucy!
    And this wonderful, wonderful story is why anyone who has ever thought, “I would love to raise a puppy who might evenutually be in service to someone like Lucy, but I could never give it up after 18 months” should think again. There are so many people whose lives, like Lucy’s, could be enriched by a highly trained dog. And you could be a part of making that happen. No better feeling in the world than seeing Lucy’s smiling face (and Willow by her side)!

  15. Rachel,

    Thanks for sharing! So amazing and powerful with words! Say hi to the family! We love you guys. Thanks for making the world a better place!

  16. I am so glad you shared this! I have thought about this so many times, but who gets the dog, Nichole (with Down syndrome) or Nina (with cerebral palsy) because they both could really benefit from a dog. And yes, I think about all the work, and can we take on any more? And somehow, I found myself moved by this post! Thanks for sharing!

  17. Ah, another tissue alert post. I loved hearing about Wilona when you all were first matched, but to read all of the fears, hopes, questions you had through the whole process really got me emotional.
    How has Lucy been at school this year? Big difference even though Wilona isn’t at school with her?
    The photos- so much love shines through!

    • Kei, this has been her best year yet. Not kidding. We really thought we would have to do something other than mainstream junior high after everything that went down in elementary school. Lucy loves the freedom of 7 classes. She has 2 aides that support her through the week. She has 2 study periods so that no homework comes home! Her grades are solid and best of all, she gets to come home and be with Wilona. She loves that Wilona takes commands from her. They are so cute together. Wilona picks up things that Lucy drops and brings them to her. She waits until Lucy’s hand is really on the item and then Lucy gives the command “GIVE” and Wilona lets go. Cutest thing you’ve ever seen. Some nights Lucy gives Wil the “jump” command after we’ve left the room, so we find them snuggled up in the morning. Lucy is such a stinker;) Wilona is just following directions.

      • Robert read your blog the other morning, and now we are wondering how/if having a canine companion would help William. Almost as if to answer, a situation came up that made us think, “hmmm, if he’d have had one, maybe William and I could have participated in this, and maybe in that other one, and….” Then we realized there will be other situations in the future that will be similar. Going to check out the application/print it out.

  18. Thank you very much for this story. We have been lucky enough to have been matched twice now with incredible CCI dogs for our daughter, Siobhan. The first time was 11 years ago with Gaynor, the second was with Harriet III a year ago. Siobhan loved Gaynor, and now she loves Harriet. The dogs have meant so much to her. At the farmers’ market each week Siobhan shares her dog with people and though she is non-vocal she communicates very well, using her voice output device to tell people Harriet’s name. I can’t imagine Siobhan’s life without a CCI dog. Thank you CCI!

    • Joseph,
      I can not imagine life without a CCI dog now. The transition must be tough. Lucy is verbal and her voice is very quiet. We bought her a mic that she can wear and it’s attached to a speaker that sits on a tray on her wheelchair, she is more confident speaking to people with it. A few weeks ago there was a Disability Resource Fair and we were representing CCI, a few days earlier I could hear Lucy in her room. She was wearing the speaker and saying, “This is my Skilled Companion, she’s a Canine Companion for Independence. Her name is Willow.” I asked my husband if he had heard this going on and we realized she was practicing introducing Willow so she’d be ready at the event. They aren’t kidding when they use the word “Independence!”

  19. Hooray! Thanks so much for sharing your story in such great detail! We are raising our fourth puppy for CCI! TRULY the best service dog organization in the world! Our first two dogs are skilled companions, both for boys named Alex! It was fun to see familiar names in your post (kong, Leon) as we raise in Denver. I will share your story on my fb page and our current puppy’s page: Eliza, CCI puppy in program. Congrats and puppy kisses!

    • Thanks Lisa,
      It IS fun to see familiar names. For me it just seems so cool that you know those Puppy Raisers. Leon was another perfect match with Julie. She needed a big dog so that he could pull the laundry basket through the house, and he is the perfect height for Julie when he “gets” and “sits” she doesn’t have to bend over to get things from his mouth. Thank you for sharing:)

  20. Great story! So happy for Lucy and glad to hear Leah is excited about getting a hearing dog! I am a puppy raiser for CCI and one of my puppies graduated from the hearing program in California. After reading your blog and Leah’s story, I am interested in Signing Time, but for myself. I am over 50 but having had a dog graduate in the hearing program and being exposed to her partner with her hearing loss, I was wondering if you had any suggestions for my learning ASL. I can’t seem to find anything local and I have always found that programs geared to kids are simpler.

    • Dean, that is so great! Signing Time was created with kids in mind, but you wouldn’t believe how many grown-ups we have taught as well. I mean, if we can teach a baby, we can teach an adult;) And just about every kid who learns to sign has at least one adult who needs to learn it right along with them:) You can usually find our shows at the library, and sometimes you can still find us on PBS, depending on where you are. I am doing a concert in Los Angeles pretty soon, if you are near there. Here’s the info on that:
      We have 26 episodes on DVD in the Signing Time line (you’ll learn more than 800 signs) and there are 4 episodes in Baby Signing Time and you’ll learn over 100 signs. All are available on as well.

  21. Thanks so much for telling us “the rest of the story”. My wife and I have been puppy raisers for several years and have been fortunate to see many of our dogs graduate and become a blessing to others, but this was the first time I’ve heard what it’s like to be on the other side of the leash.

    Clearly, thinking of getting a Service Dog is not a decision to take lightly, and this is as it should be.

    May you and Lucy be covered in love for many years to come!

    • Jeff,
      “the other side of the leash” how perfectly described! You are correct, it’s not a light decision and that’s why I struggled. We often joke that Wilona is the easiest of our kids LOL. She has the best manners and is well-trained. She follows instructions and hardly makes a sound. I giggle EVERY time I hear here coming down the hall to check in on everyone. She makes the rounds first thing in the morning and last thing at night. She plays hide-and-seek with our oldest, Leah. She let’s me know when Lucy’s bus pulls up to the house in the afternoon. The last 8 months have been such a contrast to everything prior to it. Lucy now goes to restaurants, even crowded restaurants without tears, upset or breakdown. Even if Wilona is not by her side, she manages 100% better than before she got her dog. Lucy has made unprecedented progress in dealing with social situations.

  22. Thank you for sharing this. I am a puppy raiser for CCI in Ohio and hearing these stories remind me why we do this. So very, very happy for your family.

  23. Tears in my coffee! What a sweet, motivating story. It really can apply to so many situations we face in life. I could not be more happy for your family. And can I just say that Wilona is an AWESOME name? I’d want to dress her in a wig and take her to the boutique! 😉 I hope we can connect some time this year so that you can meet out littlest.

    • Yes, the name is a name. Her nicknames are much more bizarre than her given name! And turns out Malvern was a TOTAL champ and it would have been an honor to get him. I have no doubt we will be bumping into each other. Which coast are you on now? Why am I thinking you are in CA?

      • Because you have a good memory. We have moved twice since being in Monterey for three years (I miss it!). On the east coast now. I will be sure to check for any shows nearby. My son is super stubborn when it comes to signing, but Malea is super determined (as am I) to teach him. 🙂

  24. I’m here crying tears of joy for you and your family! Your DVDs have helped our son who has special needs learn to communicate with us before and during speech therapy. I dont know where he would be right now if not for your DVDs! It has also helped ME to communicate with one of the Mom’s from his preschool who is deaf! Thank you so much!!!

    We have a dog who we got as a puppy, but not a service dog. Yet, he instinctually knows when our son will have a breakdown. He also lets me know before a Multiple Sclerosis episode. Dogs seem to be born to serve. If we give them lots of love, they will do anything they can for us! I’m so overjoyed for you and your family and that Lucy has a companion that helps he navigate this crazy world much easier! I LOVE the picture of Lucy and Willow holding hands (well, hand and paw) in the car. Companions, family, fur-ever friends.

    • Debbie,
      Wow that is so great that you’ve been able to communicate with the mom from his preschool and that your son found his voice! My favorite picture is the one where Aaron is holding Wilona up to wave good-bye through the bus window on Lucy’s first day of junior high – it makes me laugh AND cry. When Lucy is sick, Wilona literally gets up to check on her throughout the night. Yes, fur-ever:)

  25. Love this post! Your way with words always pulls on my heartstrings. What a beautiful experience for your entire family and absolutely beautiful gift for Lucy. The pictures are priceless. So so happy it all worked out for you!

  26. This is a wonderful experience and success story. Thank you for sharing it in such a complete and honest way. I felt like I was really going through it with you as you described your excitement, fear and worries. You are such a wonderful family and clearly deserve this fur-baby. I’m thrilled at how well Lucy is doing with her buddy Wii in her life. Congratulations and thank you for sharing!!!

    • Thank you Sandy,
      Lucy told me today that she had a hard day at school, there was a emergency evacuation drill. She got off the bus, went straight to her room and told Wilona all about it. She said, “mom, I might have used a few swear words when telling Wilona about my day. It was pretty intense, but she gets it.” LOL and I think she knows Wilona won’t ground her

  27. As a puppy raiser for CCI, thank you for so eloquently describing your side of the process. It’s not something we often get to see. I’m surprised how often recipients think “someone else needs the dog more”… I appreciate you sharing the anxieties, fears, concerns, so that we may better anticipate those when meeting people wondering how a dog can help them or their child. Every photo you posted conveys joy and love, of the dog, of your family. Thank you so much for this post.

    • Amy, Honestly we were SO afraid of messing it up, or not passing the test- essentially blowing this extraordinary opportunity for Lucy. I think that was the most stressful part. Plus, I don’t know how many years it had been since I had studied for a test, but I studied!
      Our concern about someone else needing the dog more was really based inside of an adult or veteran needing the dog, rather than a child who is going to have a parent by her side 99% of the time. It was really comforting when the instructor told us that there are different dogs for different needs.

  28. The wait for this post was well worth it! What a great recap of the entire process – I am sure this will help many people wondering whether to do the same. We are among the neighborhood pet sitters, but have not considered being an owner ourselves, and this has given me reason for pause. More than anything I share in your joy over how it has helped Lucy in ways you never imagined. I have such s big smile on my face reading this and moist eyes. Please give a loving pat to Wilona from me!

    • Absolutely, Anita. The post was actually longer, but I figured I had to cut it. I’m Queen of the online novella:) But there are so many great stories to tell. I did not know that a dog could be trained at this level. She’s a rockstar!

  29. I’ve raised nine puppies for CCI and will be getting my 10th puppy on Friday. Stories like yours are why I do this. Thanks sooo much for sharing!

  30. It was so great to meet Lucy and Willow at the transition fair in Murray. Emily has been asking me every day if I have applied for her dog I keep wondering the same thing. WHAT will a dog do for her? Thank you for sharing your story. I’ll get to that application today!

    • Oh good Julie, I was going to shoot you a little note to let you know I had finally posted this. It gives a glimpse of what’s to come:) I can’t wait to read YOUR story.

      Hi Emily!! If you have any questions about getting a CCI dog, you can ask me. Let’s go to a movie together some time. If my mom comes too, I can even bring my dog to a movie theater!! Isn’t that cool? Wilona’s even been on an airplane with me and that helps me stay calm. ~Lucy

  31. So happy to hear your story. And so glad that things are going well with Lucy and her new best friend. You don’t know me but when you listed the dogs in your class- my son received Topper! My son previously had a wonderful black dog named Hal from CCI but he passed away in Nov 2011. It took us awhile to reapply- the application sat a little while because I just didn’t know if we could find that perfect match again. But CCI knew. They found the perfect dog in Topper for my son Sawyer and for this time in his life. He is 15 and has Autism. We are so grateful to CCI. Since we now have a yellow dog we are covered in love too! My daughter is a puppyraiser and currently raising her 5th puppy. I love my ‘granddogs’ too. I know they all have a job to do. We wish your family the very best!

    • Kandace,
      We actually heard you and Sawyer speak on Thursday! We live in Salt Lake City and drove up for the CCI fundraiser. Lucy was the one hauling around at 5 mph in the powerwheel chair, (my apologies if she clipped anyone’s toes). I was moved to tears by your story and by Sawyer, what a well spoken young man! I can’t imagine losing a CCI dog, and how lovely that you got Topper. Lucy and Leah had bumped into you in the lobby and they came running back to tell me that they just saw Topper!! They were thrilled! I was thrilled! And really, most of all I was thrilled to see Topper up there on the stage loving his boy! We were at one of the very front tables. I had seen your story in the CCI newsletter too, a little while ago and I was relieved to know that Topper was home. Linda just contacted me to see if I would be willing to speak next year at the same event, of course I said “Yes!” Lucy said she has some things she would like to say as well- she was inspired by Sawyer too. She’s in 7th grade and is the only kid in her school in a wheelchair. (Different disability, similar circumstances) She loved seeing Topper on Sawyer’s lap when they were on stage. I am happy to share that because of YOUR team we had our first successful “crash” command. Lucy sat on the floor yesterday and finally Willow did the “down” command and settled on Lucy’s lap. Thank you!

  32. Thank you for sharing your story. I got involved with CCI recently as I’m a book manager for a recently published book called “Let the Dogs Speak!” This book is written by Marianne McKiernan, a puppy raiser for CCI. The book follows the story of four puppies in training and is written from the dog’s point of view. All of the author’s royalties from this book are donated to Canine Companions for Independence.
    This is such a wonderful organization and changes lives!

  33. I am glad you and your family are doing well. Welcome Wilona!!!

    We just got a dog for our family too … just ours is not pre-trained. But he definitely brings a lot to our family.

  34. I’m a CCI puppy raiser currently raising Sparky. I keep a picture of the recipient of my first puppy on my phone so when people ask “isn’t it hard to give the dog back?” I tell them yes but this makes it all worthwhile and flash the picture of the pup doing a ‘lap’ on her new person and I rarely need to explain it any further. Reading stories like yours makes it a lot easier too.

    • Thank you Beth, we saw a lot of tears as graduation day came closer and a large number of pups were returned to campus. We also saw a lot of joy as adorable puppies were picked up. Tears as leashes were handed off, and tears as leashes were received. I’m pretty sure I cried daily while we were there, many thankful tears. Throughout those 2 weeks, I imagined her Puppy Raisers hearing the news that she was in Team Training, then imagined they might feel torn, to hear she was pre-matched. I think it points to a lot of caring. It’s giving, receiving, acts of generosity and love ALL over that place!

  35. Rachel again you have moved me to tears with your beautiful words and ability to convey your heart felt emotions! I have had the precious gifts of love, loyalty, and devotion from dogs my entire life. Thank you for opening your heart and courageously moving into uncharted waters to learn first hand of the blessings and difference a dog makes in our lives! Thank you for sharing your experience with all of us! And Thank You ten fold to those who give of their time, talents, knowledge, hard work, donations, love and tears in the breeding, training, and teaching of these truly special canines! Words can not truly convey what our hearts feel or the lessons learned all from the unconditional love from a dog!

  36. What a wonderful story about the ‘other side’ of CCI. I read your blog through tears of joy for your perfect match. As a puppy raiser, raising my 19th CCI pup, I am reminded that YOU are the reason I have one of these special miracles in training by my side. Thank you for sharing your story!

    • 19!! Holy puppy breath:) I don’t even know what to say- I can only imagine how much you’ve done to educate communities, individuals and businesses about service animals through the years… Really, extraordinary Cheri. I bow(wow) to you and your heart.

  37. I have been a puppyraiser for CCI for 26 years. The question I get asked most is “How can you give a puppy up???”. It is stories like this that I share with people to explain! Willow was in the puppy classes I teach for CCI and I am so proud of her and all of you!

    • Cath, thank you for teaching her! She did it! She did it! There was a smashed Pringle chip on the floor for over 4 hours and she walked past it, over and over again! She’s such a good girl! We love coming home to see that happy wagging tail. She doesn’t just wag her tail, it’s her whole back-end from the waist down! When she sees that I’m ready for work in the morning, she puts herself in her kennel! What dog does that? Oh, our dog does! And you are included in that “our”. She’s OUR dog and that OUR reaches across miles into homes I’ve never seen and includes people I have yet to meet. Thank you so much! (Wasn’t she the cutest puppy ever? – you don’t have to answer that and yes, I am biased, but that’s a cute pup n)

  38. Thanks for sharing your journey with us. My 16 year old daughter is a CCI puppy raiser and is about to graduate her 4th dog. She is raising her 6th puppy now. It is so wonderful to hear abou the other side of the CCI story. It gives us renewed determination and inspiration for what we do. People often as how we can give up such wonderful dogs after loving them for 18 months. After reading your story, like so many other’s we hear about, my response is always, how can we not give them up. We are sending them to do a mission far beyond what we could even imagine. Thank you for sharing and congrats on a beautiful CCI dog.

  39. I had the honor to raise Leann who graduated with a wonderful partner during that August ceremony where you and Lucy and Wilona became a team! I loved your song you sang at graduation! Wonderful to hear about the amazing life changes Wilona, Leann, Kong and their classmates have made!!

    • Oh Bonnie, we got to see Leann again when we went back for certification, she’s really happy. Her family loves her so much.
      I imagine each placement is so different, we are Facebook friends with our Puppy Raisers, Lucy even chats regularly via text with Melayne’s daughters. We love sharing our adventures, from hospital visits to airplane rides with them.
      Here’s a link to the song I sang, it’s called, Shine:

  40. What an exquisitely written tribute to CCI! May I publish a link to it on Jeb’s DogBlog ( Also, I would love to send you a copy of my book, “Let the Dogs Speak! Puppies in Training Tell the Story of Canine Companions for Independence.” If this is of interest to you, please send me an email with your address (I promise I’m not a wacko — I’m a 9-time puppy raiser; feel free to vet me with Simi or Stu or Barbara at CCI SW!)

    • Marianne,
      Absolutely you can publish a link on Jeb’s DogBlog, we would be honored! We met you last week at the CCI Fundraiser, Lucy came up to you afterward to ask why Wilona won’t lie on Lucy’s lap. And you said, Wil said, “I’ve been trained not to.”
      Guess what? Yesterday we had a breakthrough!! Lucy was sitting on the floor watching TV and I brought Wilona just over Lucy’s legs, Wil was nervous, but I gave her the DOWN command and she did it!!!! Lucy was in heaven.
      Lucy has taken your book to school every day since Friday. She says it is awesome!!

      • Oh, of course I remember you and Lucy and Wilona! How embarassing! Glad Lucy is enjoying the book – kids are my toughest critics. If you all ever want to talk with Wilona “for real” please let me know. I do not charge for CCI grad dogs. (-:

  41. Loved this post, I just graduated with my first CCI dog, in February and echo many of your sentiments. It’s an incredible organization, and I’m still so incredulous sometimes that my dog is actually mine!

  42. Wonderful story. My daughter, a puppy raiser for CCI, convinced me to apply for a hearing dog. Like you, I hesitated thinking others had a greater need. Fortunately, I agreed to apply. After going through the phone calls and interviews, I went to team training in March and graduated a little over 2 weeks ago. What an impact my dog has already had on my life and we have only begun. Wishing you continued success with your dog.

    • AL, that’s so great! I really couldn’t imagine how much we would get from Wilona, sounds like you are in the same boat. Leah had a snowboarding instructor who was deaf and she had a hearing dog, this was two years ago, and the instructor shared with Leah how much her dog changed her life and gave her confidence.

  43. I’m so happy for your family! I’m a 2 time puppy raiser and I know Kong and Leann’s puppy raisers. It was fun to read their names in your list. 🙂 I’m so glad Willow is fitting in so well and I know Lucy will soar with her new buddy by her side. Blessings!

  44. Coleman family – We have been raising these wonderful for almost 10 years and have had the tearful joy of passing the leash 3 times.
    It is so great to hear stories like yours. All these dogs, puppy raisers, breeder caretakers and recipients are family.
    This is why we do what we do with these dogs.

    • Lee,
      All through Team Training I would get choked up just imagining graduation and the passing of the leash. It did not disappoint. Lucy has the certificate, showing that Wilona is hers, framed in her bedroom wall. Thank you for the gift of Puppy love

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