A local woman recently received a care package to help in a mission to train her student in the field of service.

THE ISSUE: Canine Companions for Independence dogs are coveted; seeking a companion dog can be a two-year wait.

LOCAL IMPACT: Shawnee woman Linda McMahan, until May, has been the only Canine Companion service dog trainer in Oklahoma. She is now training her eighth assistance dog, Noni IV.

A local woman recently received a care package to help in a mission to train her student in the field of service.

Henry Schein, Inc., and Canine Companions for Independence, Inc., partnered with Dr. Trent Marr, veterinarian at Dogwood Veterinary Hospital in Shawnee, to provide products and care for Noni IV, who will eventually serve as a highly-trained assistance dog for a child or adult with disabilities.

Noni's trainer Linda McMahan has been imparting specialized skills to puppies for CCI since 2006.

“Henry Schein is a remarkable organization,” McMahan said. “I have been working with them since I started.”

CCI dogs are free to those who apply for them.

“These are highly trained animals,” McMahan said.

The CCI dogs are coveted; seeking a companion dog can be a two-year wait.

It's not hard to see why there's such a long waiting list since McMahan, until May, has been the only CCI trainer in Oklahoma.

“We finally just recently got a second trainer in the state,” she said. “My dogs have been sent all over the country — like North Carolina, Texas and California.”

She's still considered family among her graduates; she said she gets texts and emails from their owners routinely.

Former canine students Delores, a yellow lab, and Benisa, a black lab, gained some notoriety among Shawnee Middle School's human students years back when McMahan — then an eighth-grade science teacher — allowed them to be part of a reading program in the library.

“My principal at the time, Dr. Marsha Gore, was very supportive of the program,” McMahan said. “The kids got to see why we were doing it and how it helped others.”

She said Delores — though ultimately rejected as a CCI service dog — was able to touch hundreds of lives at the school.

McMahan said the ultimate goal is that wherever she goes, so does her trainee.

“When they're really young they can't go everywhere,” she said; she starts with a puppy at about eight weeks old.

McMahan said she has to get the animal used to public places and people gradually.

She said it's very important to not interact with these dogs without permission.

McMahan advised that if a trainer or owner doesn't allow the interference, don't take it personal; the animal is on the job.

“During training there are many times when outside distractions can be a problem,” she said. “The dogs are having to learn impeccable skills and manners,” she said.

McMahan said interruptions can potentially put the dog or its person in danger.

“For example, if a deaf person's assistance dog becomes distracted or overwhelmed with a lot of noise, it may miss an important sign for or command from its owner,” she said.

There are going to be times now and then when she is able to allow people to pet or talk to the dog.

“Just be sure to ask first,” she said. “It's just that people around here aren't used to dealing with dogs in training. There needs to be more education about it.”

With the constant 24/7 interaction, McMahan said it can be a very difficult time when the dog — after about 18 months — is ready to move on to its next level of training.

“When you're together all the time, it's hard to let them go,” she said.

But, let them go she continues to do; Noni is McMahan's eighth assistance dog trainee — she's had her about four months now.

“She can be sweet, loving and gentle,” she said.

And sometimes she's like a buzzsaw, McMahan laughed.

“Noni's not scared of much,” she said. “Each dog trains differently. You have to learn their personality.”

She said some will respond easily with a verbal command, while others need a firmer, gruff voice.

McMahan said not all dogs are cut out for the service their training is intended for.

Three of her seven previous trainees have been rejected from advanced training.

“There can be lots of reasons,” she said. “Some don't deal well with loud noises, some are too anxious and sometimes they may have some health issues.”

For those released from the program, the puppy raiser can opt to keep the animal, she said.

Professional training is built into more specific tasks from the base commands coached by trainers like McMahan.

“There are about 30 base commands we teach,” she said. “Then when the dog moves up a level, they teach skills suited to more closely help the owner.”

For example, she said she is teaching Noni the “up” command, where she trains the dog to place her feet up against something higher — like a wall.

“In professional training, they will use that basic command and add a task like turning on a light switch with their nose,” she said.

Help from others

Marr also contributes to the puppy’s health and development through the Henry Schein Cares-Canine Companions puppy raiser care package that he presented for Noni. The care package contains items essential to caring for the puppy during its first 18 months of its life. With a total value greater than $300, the package is designed to help defray the costs that Marr and McMahan will incur while caring for the puppy.

The package is part of a unique program created by CCI, the first and largest assistance dog organization in the United States helping people with physical disabilities, and Henry Schein Animal Health, a companion animal health product and services provider. Veterinarians like Marr have delivered more than 1,000 care packages to volunteer puppy raisers during the program, which began in September 2015.

“As veterinarians, we enter this profession because we can think of no higher calling than to provide for the health and safety of animals,” Marr said. “It is an incredible honor to work with Noni, who will provide a deserving child or adult with greater independence, protection, devotion, and so much more.”

Marr thanked Henry Schein CCI for sharing his commitment to the service dog in training.

CCI service dogs typically are Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, or crosses of the two. They are partnered with individuals with physical disabilities to assist with daily tasks and to increase independence by reducing reliance on other people. A service dog can pull their partner in a manual wheelchair, push buttons for elevators or automatic doors or assist with personal transactions.

Paul Mundell, Chief Executive Officer of Canine Companions for Independence, said his program relies heavily on veterinarians like Marr.

“Veterinarians give so much of their time and talent to caring for our puppies at this critical stage in their development,” Mundell said. “It’s very rewarding to be able to partner with Henry Schein to provide our veterinarians and volunteer puppy raisers with a selection of products that will help them transform these adorable puppies into remarkable dogs.”

You can reach Vicky O. Misa at (405) 214-3962.