Alexandria family raises puppy Yul for a life helping others

Alexandria family raises puppy Yul for a life helping others

By Chris Teale (Photo/Holly Bowers)

He is just 11 weeks old, but already Labrador/golden retriever mix Yul is getting ready for a life of helping others, as an Alexandria family raises him until February 2017 for charitable organization Canine Companions for Independence.

Chris McAfee and his mother Kathy found out about CCI through Old Towne School for Dogs, where Chris works in addition to being in his senior year at The Lab School of Washington. Because Chris has already had some experience looking after and training animals, CCI is the perfect fit for him, even with its rigorous curriculum of commands and other actions for the dogs-in-training to be familiarized with.

CCI provides highly trained assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities, at no cost to the recipient, thanks to donors. The organization has its own breeding program at its national headquarters in Santa Rosa, Calif., breeding Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and crosses of the two. CCI retains official ownership of the dog, and the pooch must undergo yearly recertification tests, also provided at no cost.

Already, Yul seems to be making great progress, even after only two and a half weeks with the McAfees.

“He’s definitely got ‘Hurry,’ which is basically where you take him outside on a leash and say ‘Hurry’ in order [for him] to go to the bathroom,” Chris said. “He does that perfectly, and ‘Let’s go’ really well. He mastered ‘Sit’ before ‘Hurry.’ We’re working on ‘Release.’”

The McAfees raise Yul and work to socialize him with other dogs and people before gradually introducing him to new situations as he grows older and finishes his course of vaccinations. His training includes riding on public transportation, going to school and the library. It all provides Yul with grounding in what will be expected of him as an assistance dog, particularly learning to deal with diversions in the outside world, and he does all this in his yellow cape, a hallmark of assistance dogs-in-training.

“I take him out into Old Town around distractions, getting him used to normal things like people, or if a plane flies over, car honks, just so he’s used to that and so he’s not scared of a normal encounter,” Chris said. “He always wants to say hi to everyone, especially walking in Old Town. He just stops and waits for them to start petting him.

“He’s really good with people and especially with other dogs, he’ll go up to them and start sniffing them and playing with them.”

As part of the socialization process, Yul accompanies Kathy to work at two Old Town law firms, and she said he already seems to have adapted to a work environment.

“He comes in, sits right under my desk, and he goes down and goes to bed,” she said. “I think he’s gotten to the point now where at first he used to stay in my office, now he gets up and walks around and goes into everybody else’s office. Socially he’s getting along with everybody.”

Yul will be with the McAfees until 2017, when he will return to CCI’s regional headquarters in Long Island for six months of advanced training and evaluation before being paired up with someone who needs an assistance dog. Only four out of every 10 dogs graduate through the program, while the others often return to the family that raised them. And while the prospect of giving up a puppy may be hard, the McAfees know it is all part of a plan for Yul to make a difference.

“We went into it knowing we were going to have to give him up,” Chris said. “I think I’d be OK, I’ll be a little emotional, but we’re giving him up to do a good cause. And there’s always a chance that if he doesn’t necessarily succeed in the training he can come back to us. We want him to succeed.”

If he does graduate, Yul can expect to be put to work in one of a variety of roles, as CCI works to assist people with a broad range of disabilities and also uses dogs as therapy animals.

“We have several other types of service dog placements, including facility dogs,” said John Bentzinger, spokesman for CCI, in an email. “There are many hospitals and rehabilitation centers that use our dogs as motivational tool. We also have several dogs that have been placed in the criminal justice system, giving comfort to children who are victims of sexual abuse and other violent crimes as they give testimony against their tormentors.

“We also have a very active wounded veterans initiative that places our dogs with disabled veterans returning from the theaters of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

With what the company has described as a “blizzard of litters” coming in January — 22 litters of puppies being born — the need for volunteer trainers has never been greater, with the likes of Yul and his puppy peers across the country preparing for a life of working for a good cause.