First-Person: Shannon Cogan and her son’s journey for a service dog

Shannon Cogan and her son meet his new service dog through Canine Companions for Independence
Published: Aug. 16, 2019 at 7:42 PM EDT
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NEW ALBANY, Ohio (WAVE) - As parents, we want the best for our children. We want to help them in any way possible.

My son Colt had medical complications at birth that included open heart surgery, followed by a cardiac arrest, which has impacted his life. That’s why when it was suggested a dog from Canine Companions for Independence would help our son Colt, my husband and I did what we could to make that happen.

It started with applications, followed by a phone and in-person interviews at the North Central Training Center in New Albany, Ohio, near Columbus. In all, it was a two-year wait. Then, we learned that Colt and I were invited to take part in the two weeks of what is called team training. It’s when the recipient is hopefully matched with a dog, and gets comfortable using all of the nearly 50 commands these dogs know.

We were at the team training with six other children and their parents, each putting a pause on their lives for two weeks, hopeful that the dog will make a big difference for their child’s life.

For the first two days, the trainers have the teams (child and parent) work with many different dogs to determine the right match. It’s sort of like matchmaking for dogs and people.

“So we’re making a match a lot based on its temperament, and trying to match those with how a person’s lifestyle might be,” said Gwen Dudek, Program Director for Canine Companions for Independence.

Colt had worked with a 2-year-old lab/golden cross named Wink, and immediately fell in love. For two days, he talked about how he hoped he would be matched with her. And he was.

“She’s cuddly, she hugs me, she’s fluffy, and I love her,” Colt said.

Wink’s story began two years ago. All of the dogs with Canine Companions for Independence are specially-bred for this type of work. Dudek said they are environmentally stable, healthy, have a lower energy level, and are mostly focused on people.

Then, for a year and a half, a family outside of Chicago volunteered to raise Wink, teaching Wink about 30 commands and things like toileting.

The volunteer puppy raiser then turns over the leash to Canine Companions for Independence where trainers work with the dogs for six months learning additional commands. Wink joined other dogs at Canine Companions for Independence North Central Training Center, in Ohio.

Some of the commands the dogs know are push, get, up, give, tug, under. Perhaps the most impressive, they can sit with food placed on their paws and not eat it, unless given the OK. They also don’t bark, unless commanded. The children’s favorite command is visit.

“It means your dog comes up and sits so you can pet it whenever you want,” said Steven Parker, Jr., who was matched with a golden retriever named Benton.

For those getting dogs under the age of 18, there are two leashes. The children have one and so does the parent.

Each team matched, seemed like a perfect match.

“What Benton has added, has been life-changing,” Steven Parker, Sr. said.

Brielle Kennedy was matched with Wrigley, Wink’s sister.

“Life before Wrigley was OK,” Kennedy said. “But then I got her and I was like ‘This is going to be a new era and stuff.’ When I say commands and (Wrigley) does it, it makes me feel like a leader.”

Toward the end of the first week of training, the dogs are already focusing more on the kids than their trainers.

“It has been so fulfilling to see her form this bond with Wrigley,” Brielle’s mom said. “I feel like every day we get together, there’s just so much more love between both of them.”

My heart filled with joy seeing that with each command Colt gave Wink, he is working on his speech.

And then we learned that some of the commands will help Colt get stronger with occupational and physical therapy exercises that he didn’t want to do before, but will do now with Wink. Situations that used to frustrate him now seem a whole lot easier.

“It will help me with everything,” Colt said.

And that is everything.

While Colt would love Wink to go to school with him, Canine Companions doesn’t allow that because the trained facilitator has to be there to correct the dog.

The hardest part for the parents is not to love on the dogs because the love needs to come from the child, and the corrections from the parent.

While Colt’s group was made up of children, there was another group being trained at the same time made up of adults at a different location.

Canine Companions for Independence was founded in 1975 and has six training centers across the country. More than 6,000 graduate teams have been placed since its inception.

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