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Way beyond fetch: Service dogs help people with disabilities

Published August 24, 2011 9:22 am

Canine Companions • Group assists people with disabilities.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

These dogs don't just fetch.

They turn on light switches, drag laundry baskets, pull wheelchairs and give autistic children the confidence to visit the dentist.

But before Canine Companions for Independence dogs can fulfill their destiny of becoming service animals to people with disabilities, they need the right start in life. At 8 weeks old, the dogs go from a breeder to a carefully screened volunteer "puppy raiser," said Melanie Dutcher, president of the national organization's Utah chapter, Wasatch Companions.

"They are in an important developmental phase," she said. "If handled properly, you get a confident and safe dog."

Wasatch Companions has about 100 volunteers, and on Friday, one of those volunteers inspired a $10,000 donation from Wells Fargo. The bank presented a check to the organization through its Volunteer Service Award program at a fundraiser golf tournament in Midway.

That volunteer is Riverton resident Barbara Kronenberg, a property manager with Wells Fargo Corporate Property Group. Last October, after a screening that including an hour-long phone interview and home visit, she began raising a black Labrador and golden retriever mix named Balsa.

It's a fitting tribute to the dog that became the "office princess," as Kronenberg put it, as she came into work with her temporary owner every day to help her socialization process. Kronenberg has also taken Balsa into grocery stores, restaurants and ballparks.

"Her favorite thing is to visit with kids," Kronenberg said. Becoming accustomed to different people, places and sounds without fear is essential to becoming a good service dog, she said.

The experience has changed Kronenberg, too. Balsa wears a cape that designates her as a service-dog-in-training, something that has become a frequent conversation starter.

"Before Balsa, I would be out in public and I wouldn't really talk to people much," she said. "They see Balsa with the cape on and tend to want to talk about Canine Companions. … It's opened me up more in public."

She also works with Balsa for 30 minutes to an hour a day, teaching her about 30 basic commands, such as sit, stay and come, along with manners, such as not eating off the table or the floor. Kronenberg and her husband also pay for all of Balsa's food, housing and care while the dog is with them.

Balsa's training process is a more rigourous track than Kronenberg took with her own pet dog, a border collie named Rowdy.

"Rowdy is a pet; Balsa is a tool, a service dog," she said. But even though Balsa has a job to learn, she gets to have some fun, too. She loves chasing after her ball after tossing it into the air with a ball launcher, and on walks around the neighborhood, children love to come up and pet her, Kronenberg said.

In February, after about a year and a half with Kronenberg, Balsa will go to advanced-skill school at Canine Companions' national headquarters in California. Then she'll be paired with a human partner who has a disability — possibly someone with Down syndrome, an injured war veteran, a paraplegic person or an autistic child.

"There's one boy who has a service dog named Hal. Before he got Hal, he wasn't able to go out in a crowd, stand in lines," Dutcher said. "Now, when he goes to the dentist, Hal just lays his head in his lap, and it's all cool."

The dogs are specially bred for an even, caring temperament. After the pairing, Canine Companions runs support programs to make sure the partnership is going smoothly, then cares for the dog after its retirement. The total cost per dog is estimated at $50,000, Dutcher said.

All of the dogs are free to their human partners. There's a waiting list of just under a year to around two years to be paired with a dog.

Balsa will become one of those companions after leaving Kronenberg's home in February. It's a bittersweet deadline.

"We think about it a lot," Kronenberg said. "I tell myself I'm not doing this for me, I'm doing it for someone else. … Maybe I'm helping someone go to work, live a full, independent life."


Twitter: @lwhitehurst —

Want to raise a companion dog?

I Start at Canine Companions for Independence's website, cci.org, and the Utah chapter's site, wasatchchampions.blogspot.com. For more information, send an email to wasatchchampions@gmail.com.






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