A boy and his (service) dog

A boy and his (service) dog
Courtesy Photo

By Lisa McLean

When 16-year-old Samuel Cordell marched proudly down Pennsylvania Avenue as part of the inaugural parade, he did so with the reassuring presence of Theda, his companion dog, by his side.

A Labrador, Theda has been inseparable from the autistic Alexandria teenager since 2008. And the duo got their chance to celebrate President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in style through the California-based organization that paired them together.

Sam and Theda preparing for the inauguration parade in Washington earlier this week. Courtesy Photo

Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), dedicated to raising service dogs, puts their hounds through a rigorous two-year training program. Only four out of 10 dogs eventually make the group’s final cut.

More than a few of the skills Theda picked up benefit Sam, who struggles to interact with other kids and adults. She has a calming influence on him, especially in public situations that cause anxiety, such as going to doctor’s appointments. His father, David Cordell, said that Theda senses when Sam is agitated and will cuddle up with him, which relaxes him.

“The most magical thing is the bridge to the community,” David said. “When we go for walks kids will ask Sam to pet the dog—it helps with his interpersonal skills.”

The dog also accompanies the family to restaurants and the synagogue.

“Everyone is very accepting,” David said.

His father began pondering bringing home a companion dog after Sam — at one time afraid of canines — bonded with a puppy at an event. But trying to find a dog was not an easy or inexpensive feat.

That’s when David found CCI. Two years later the family welcomed Theda into their lives.

Theda’s journey began like all of CCI’s dogs, raised with volunteers like city resident Kathleen Landauer, who take the puppies into their homes for 18 months of basic training and socialization.

Afterward the young dogs are flown back to the company’s regional headquarters where they enter into a six-month intensive training program. The effort costs in excess of $45,000 per dog and the group depend’s on donors and volunteers to keep the program running.

Landauer has been raising service dogs off and off since 1993, and has been working with CCI for the past few years. Her love of dogs and her desire to provide a community service keeps her energized.

“You use your talents,” she said, “and you do something that doesn’t wear you out.”

She’s been asked how she can hand over a dog she’s lived with and loved but seeing them with a recipient is well worth it.

“It’s a good way to console yourself,” she said.

And there’s always the chance one of the dogs that don’t end up completing the program might return to her Alexandria home.

Landauer also marched in the inaugural parade with the service dogs and those benefiting from them. It was a very long day, but worth it, she said.

“You’re so proud of them,” Landauer said.