Abbi Roman was going in for a CT scan.
This procedure, often described as quick and painless, was actually a huge ordeal for Abbi. She has autism and is extremely sensitive to loud noises, such as the hum of a CT scanner.
According to the National Autism Association, auditory sensitivity is a common symptom of autism, although it’s difficult to say exactly how many people experience it. To manage the painful sensations, they may rock back and forth, flap their hands, or use some other kind of physical movement. In Abbi’s case, the confining environment and noise of the CT scanner would have quickly become overwhelming to her, and any physical response would have made the test impossible.
That’s why Abbi was lucky to have her good friend Tennele with her.
Tennele is a golden Labrador retriever provided to Abbi free of charge by Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit headquartered in Santa Rosa, California. Tennele climbed up on the gurney itself and lay down on Abbi’s legs, calming her and allowing the scan to proceed.
“The dog literally went in the tube with her,” said Eric Roman, Abbi’s father. “The constant warm pressure of Tennele’s body is very calming to her.”
“She does the same thing to help Abbi fall asleep at night,” he added.
Roman, an appraiser in the real estate division at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District, credits Canine Companions with giving their family a new degree of freedom and independence, allowing Abbi to leave the house and giving her a sensory anchor in a world filled with loud and confusing stimuli.
“It’s completely transformed our lives,” said Roman. “Without Tennele, there’s no way we could have a normal life.”
Tennele is the second Canine Companions service dog the Romans have been paired with. Their first came when Abbi was only 12. Now, she’s 21.
The Romans are not the only family connected to the Sacramento District whose lives are impacted by Canine Companions dogs. There’s also Drew and Renee Perry, whose son Andrew has lissencephaly. Perry retired from the Corps of Engineers in 2015 after 32 years with the Sacramento District.
We traveled to Santa Rosa to attend the graduation of the Perrys and their new assistance dog from Team Training on April 19. This is the final stage of Canine Companions’ rigorous three-stage training process for new service dogs. The first stage is one that many USACE employees are familiar with as well, because they do it themselves.
Canine Companions Apprentice Instructor Courtney Unger explained that the puppies stay with their initial volunteer breeder caretaker for the first eight weeks of their lives. Then, from eight weeks until approximately a year and a half old, the puppies are under the care of a volunteer puppy raiser.
The puppy raisers spend not only an enormous amount of time caring for the puppies, socializing them, and teaching them around 35 basic commands, but they also pay for screening, immunizations, and other veterinary needs completely out of their own pockets.
When they reach 18 months, the puppies go back to Canine Companions to experience six additional months of more advanced training with their professional trainers. The final stage is Team Training, a two-week process of training dog, recipient, and caregiver to work together as a single team.
The organization provides expertly-trained assistance dogs to people with disabilities completely free of charge.
“The puppy raisers devote their time, love, money and energy to these dogs,” said Unger. “At the graduation, you see how it’s all worth it because these dogs are destined for greater things than we can conceive of.”
Brian Poole works as deputy chief of construction for the Sacramento District and volunteers as a puppy raiser for Canine Companions. His fifth Canine Companions puppy, Dior, sleeps quietly under his desk for most of the day. When I stopped by to speak with Brian, Dior got up to sleepily greet me and then retreated to her “den.”
I mean, I get groggy in mid-afternoon too, but Dior is still a puppy. She’s unusually calm and self-possessed for her age, a testament to Brian’s steady and experienced hand in raising her for a life of service.
“My daughter turned 14 when we got our first puppy, and now she’s 22 and raising one of her own,” said Poole.
Part of the role of puppy raisers is in screening—determining whether a dog possesses the mental abilities and concentration necessary to be a service dog. But the ones who don’t make the cut aren’t abandoned.
“We have multiple options for what we call release dogs,” said Unger. “We have several different programs—service dogs, skilled companions, facility dogs, hearing dogs, and we just started a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) assistance dog training program. Dogs that aren’t a good fit for our program are sometimes given to other working dog organizations, such as seizure or diabetic alert training.”
“And sometimes, we decide they’re better suited to be a pet in a loving home, so they’re adopted,” said Unger.
Although it hasn’t happened yet, it’s possible that a dog raised by a Sacramento District employee could end up serving with a fellow employee who is disabled, or a family member.
And besides the benefit of simply having puppies at work, employees assisting in a process that transforms other employees’ lives reinforces the positive and helpful environment around the District.
“We have always been impressed by the volunteer spirit of the Sacramento District employees,” said Perry. “The tremendous support that Corps employees give one another and to our community has made me proud to be part of the Corps and really motivated me to do my best.”