Whenever Joanne Hall talks about Cora, she cries tears of relief.
Cora is a service dog and has been her son Kai Johannes’ constant companion since becoming part of his world four years ago.
“From the day she’s come in, she’s changed our world,” Hall said.
Kai, 10, has autism and Cora provides a calming influence that makes life just a bit easier for the whole family. When Cora first arrived, she stayed with Kai through the night.
And when he got sick last year and had to go to the hospital, she was by his side the whole time.
“He is the first responder,” said Hall.
Cora helps settle things down enough that Hall can even have time to have a shower.
“The parents have a freedom that they have never had before.”
Cora is one of many service dogs to graduate from the Assistance Service Dogs B.C. Association in Maple Ridge.
The association is currently looking for five homes to help raise five more Coras, to help kids get by in a tough world.
The association, based in Stave Falls, trains dogs for children with disabilities, mainly autism, and is looking for five homes that will take a nine-week-old labradoodle puppy for a year and provide the first part of their training to become a service dog.
While the pups are all about just playing around right now, their training will start as soon as they get placed into a foster home.
Their trainers will put on a “service-dog-in-training” bib and take the pup to as many different environments as possible so the dogs get used to being out in public.
Exercise is part of the program, too, because the dogs need up to 40 minutes of exercise every day, although that can’t be in a dog park.
The puppies are not allowed to visit public dog parks, nor run around off leash, unless they’re in a contained area. Daily training and attending free obedience classes for the duration of the puppy-raising period, are also part of the requirements.
Darlene McKeown, in Maple Ridge, is the first foster mom to step forward. She’ll be taking care of Bruno, a galloping, goofy puppy who’s already got one up on his litter mates by wearing a red collar.
She’d like to take him to work and on to SkyTrain as two early exercises. That requires contacting employers or groups where the dogs will show up so everyone is aware of the process.
McKeown isn’t worried about having to give up Bruno after a year. She wants to pass him on so that he’s able to do what he’ll be trained to do – help others.
“We’re in love with him. He’s so sweet, but we want to give him back.”
Marie Krzus, with Assistance Service Dogs, said homes for the other puppies, who’ve all had their shots, are still needed.
So far, since 2014, the association has placed seven service dogs for special needs children, with three of those in Maple Ridge.
Krzus adds that many families are looking for a temporary dog. For some, it works out to have a dog for just a year because it fits in with family plans.
Handing over the pooch after the one year of training is tough, but rewarding, and easier because families are prepared for the moment when they give up their friend.
They’re also able to keep in touch with their dog as he or she completes training and gets placed permanently.
“A lot of the families, this is what they’re looking for,” Krzus said.
Dogs with calm, confident personalities, usually Labradors or golden retrievers, make good assistance dogs.
“So far, they’re all showing signs of that.”
For instance, dogs that are used to a lot of contact can calm down kids who are experiencing sensory overload. She mentions one non-verbal autistic child who got paired up with an assistance dog, and within six months that child was starting to speak, despite years of previous speech therapy.
“It’s such a beautiful program and so rewarding for the applicant families and these foster families.”
After the five have been fostered out, there are more coming. The association has two breeding females and the other is expecting in weeks.
“Mid-June, there will be a whole other litter to go.”