Service dogs a labor of love |

Service dogs a labor of love

Abigail Eagye
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

At first glance, Janet appears to be a puppy like any other. And to watch Aspenite JoAnn Niebur teach the dog the usual commands – sit, stay, down – you’d never know the 3-month-old has a special destiny.But when she dons her yellow cape, it’s clear Janet was bred for a mission. She’s a service dog in training, bred by the national nonprofit organization Canine Companions for Independence.CCI desperately needs puppy raisers like Niebur and her family to shepherd the pups through the first year and a half of their lives.Janet is the second puppy Niebur and her family have taken on, and she’s hoping more people in the Aspen area will be interested in caring for the potential service dogs.But the puppies are not ordinary pets. CCI’s website,, outlines the requirements for puppy raisers. The young dogs need constant supervision (made easier by the fact that they’re allowed in places other dogs are not), consistent training according to CCI guidelines, and, most of all, an “owner” who’s prepared to give them up once they’ve reached a certain age, generally between 16 months old to 18 months old.”They give you tons of information, and it’s all very step-by-step,” Niebur said. “It’s really not hard.”

The need for service dogsSeparating from the furry family member can be difficult, but it’s a labor of love for Niebur and her family, husband Dewayne and children Tara, 11, and Kinley, 9. When the Nieburs’ last puppy, Bryka, reached the right age, JoAnn Niebur flew to California with the dog to watch her “graduate.” Bryka is now in advanced training, and if she passes, she’ll be matched personally with a disabled person who needs a canine companion.When Niebur learned what a difference Bryka could make in someone else’s life, she said, letting go of the dog was much easier. At Bryka’s graduation, Niebur heard the story of a young boy with autism who, every year, was evaluated as violent and unable to learn or to make friends. Doctors had tried all sorts of treatments to help him, but to no avail. After getting a service dog, however, the boy grew to be friendly and open, and he began making friends and learning. His evaluators were stumped. When they asked his parents what medications he was taking, his mother told them none. It was the dog that made the difference.”I said, OK, I can go turn in Bryka now,” Niebur said.Many people have trouble interacting with visibly disabled children, and that can have negative consequences for a child.

“People will pass them right by and avert their eyes,” Niebur said. “But they get a dog, and suddenly people will stop and start to talk to them.”That creates more opportunities for interaction with others, which can really bring a child out of his or her shell. Niebur recounted another story of a boy who barely spoke. Only his parents could understand him, until they got a service dog. Six months later, when Niebur met the boy, he was talking and interacting, and she could understand nearly all of what he said.Life with a puppy in trainingWhen Niebur was raising Bryka, she regularly brought the puppy to work with her at the elementary school cafeteria. It was a perfect opportunity to socialize Bryka and to teach the kids about how to deal with a service dog.It’s important that strangers not approach a puppy in training, or even a fully trained working dog, without the owner’s permission. Similarly, Niebur said, it’s challenging for a service dog if other dog owners allow their pets to approach uninvited.”It’s very difficult for a young dog to concentrate on its work if another dog is asking it to play,” Niebur said.

The different-colored capes are a sure sign that a dog is working, she said, although, “in Aspen, where everybody’s dog wears an outfit, it’s hard to tell.”Despite the need for respect, however, many disabled people with working dogs are happy to share their stories or even let strangers pet the dogs, if they ask first.Although CCI breeds dogs specifically for service with disabled people, only about 30 percent of the dogs make the cut, Niebur said. The remaining dogs, if they can’t find work as police dogs or seeing-eye dogs, are offered first to their specific puppy raisers. And if the puppy raiser declines, CCI has a three-year waiting list of would-be owners who want the well-trained dogs.Niebur and her family are among a small handful of puppy raisers in the area, but if more people take on the responsibility, Niebur said, local support services such as free training are likely to increase.To learn more about CCI, to apply for a canine companion or to be a puppy raiser, go online to Donations also are welcome.Abigail Eagye’s e-mail address is

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