JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Our four-legged sons and daughters have a way of leaving paw prints on our hearts. For the people who raise puppies before sending them off to become full-time service dogs for those in need, the bond is especially great.
The group Canine Companions for Independence breeds, raises, trains, and places these dogs with children, adults, and veterans with disabilities or are in recovery. The group is always in need of puppy raisers.
One-year-old Yohan spent the first several months of his life at Gadsden prison near Tallahassee as part of a puppy raising program. These days, his humans are Mark Stuart and his wife, Karla.
"We like to say that underneath every service dog's vest beats the heart of a puppy raiser," Stuart said.
Yohan is the couple's third puppy they've raised through Canine Companions for Independence. Every day, they work hard to get him ready for the next phase of his training. Puppy raisers keep the dogs until they’re around 20-23 months old.
From there, they’re returned to Canine Companions where they undergo more professional training. At a later time, it will be determined if they can graduate from the program and be placed with a recipient.
The couple’s first dog, Keegan, graduated from the program and was placed with a man living with cerebral palsy. Stuart said the man’s hope with his dog was to help him have more in common with able-bodied people.
"Subsequently after getting his dog, he got married. We got a witness a miracle with that."
There are many more miracles on the horizon for the puppies in this phase of the program. Through training, the dogs learn 30 different commands.
Those in training wear a yellow vest. If the dogs complete all phases of the program and graduate, they'll wear the blue vest.
The group has facility dogs for people who are recovering from injuries and car accidents. These dogs can be found at Ronald McDonald House and Brooks Rehabilitation here in Jacksonville.
Other dogs are placed with individuals living with physical disabilities. The dogs are trained for most physical disabilities except blindness.
When that time comes and the dogs are placed, it's emotional for everyone.
“Those are selfish tears because these dogs are meant for a life of service. We know they’re going on to bigger and better things that really help people who deserve the independence and dignity that our dogs provide,” Stuart said.
Knowing these animals are making a difference make the work and sacrifice worth it all.
The group is holding its biggest fundraiser, DogFest, on March 28th at the Seawalk Pavilion in Jacksonville Beach.