Canine Companions Offers Independence for Some, Rewarding Volunteer Opportunity for Others

For the past three years, Canine Companions for Independence at Baylor Scott and White Health Kinkeade Campus has been pairing individuals with service dogs and, in the process, changing lives throughout the state.

“Canine Companions provides highly trained assistance dogs to children, adults and veterans with physical, cognitive or developmental disabilities,” says Courtney Craig, Canine Companions public relations and marketing coordinator.

The organization offers four types of assistance dogs: service dogs, who offer assistance to adults with physical disabilities who can handle and care for the dog independently; skilled companion dogs, who work with adults or children under the guidance of a parent or caregiver; facility dogs, who work in a professional setting, such as a hospital or special education classroom; and hearing dogs, who work with hearing impaired partners.

Canine Companions depends on volunteers to help the program succeed. One of the most important volunteer roles is that of puppy raiser. Puppy raisers take the 8-week-old soon-to-be assistance puppies into their homes for about a year and a half to help build the foundation for the dog’s future role.

Rex Vehrs

Rex Vehrs of Flower Mound received his service dog, Inez, two years ago.

Rex attended a two-week team training at Canine Companions, and at the end of the training, he was matched with Inez. He immediately went home and researched the meaning of her name and found that “Inez” was Portuguese for “pure” or “good.”

“What a perfect name they gave her because she is pure and good,” Rex says.  “She’s amazing. She’s a miracle.”

Rex’s wife, Shelley; son, Cameron; and daughter, Regan, all agree.

“They all love her to death,” Rex says. “She has been a great addition to our family. She’s one of our kids.”

Rex, an Army veteran, sustained multiple injuries and underwent several surgeries throughout his career. He was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and also suffers from seizures due to a spinal cord injury. When he has a seizure, Rex says he is prone to drop items. And when he bends to retrieve items, his body produces a strong pain response. At first, he contacted Canine Companions simply to receive a dog to help him retrieve items that he dropped during the day. But Rex says he received much more than he had hoped for in Inez.

Unlike their other two dogs, Rex says Inez knows once her service vest and collar are on, she has an important role to play.

“When she’s out with me, she knows she’s working,” he says.  

In addition to retrieving dropped items, Inez has allowed Rex to do more things with his family because she redirects his attention when he is in pain.

“She senses my pain—whether emotional or physical,” he says. “I still have pain, but she comforts me through it.”

Since receiving Inez, Rex has been able to walk farther, go to the grocery store and even take his son to an FC Dallas game.

Rex says he is grateful to Canine Companions and to the true heroes, who he says are the puppy raisers who socialize and prepare the assistance dogs for their future roles. To this day, he remains in contact with the puppy raiser who raised Inez.  

“The puppy raisers are the unheard-of heroes,” Rex says. “For them to give their dog up, that’s my definition of a hero because they are sacrificing so much to make a difference.”

Ashley and Chay Henson

Highland Village residents Ashley and Chay Henson and their children, Rhett and Harper, are raising their first puppy with Canine Companions. The couple received their puppy, Corby, in January and are scheduled to have her until November 2019.

“We decided to puppy raise because we are always looking for service projects to do as a family,” Ashley says. “When we learned about Canine Companions, we knew this was the perfect mission for us. This experience is teaching our kids so much about doing for others and people with disabilities.”

The Hensons take Corby to training twice a month at the Canine Companions facility in Irving, where they learn commands and then implement them at home.

“Right now Rhett is working on a fun command with her. He puts kibble on her paws or spells out her name with kibble on the floor and she is not allowed to eat it until he gives her the command. This is a great way to train her to only eat on command and not eat off the floor. It gives the kids a job too so they feel a part of the training process,” she says.

Raising a Canine Companions puppy also means taking Corby to places other pets typically don’t go.

“We are taking Corby to places that you would never take a household dog to—such as our kids’ school and the George W. Bush Presidential Library,” Ashley says. “She’s done great at all of our outings. We are always sure to have her vest on and information cards to hand out if people ask about her. It’s important for the community to understand she is a service dog in training.”

Ashley says saying goodbye to Corby when the time comes for her to move into her assistance role will be difficult, but they are already preparing for that day.

“We remind ourselves that we may want Corby, but someone needs Corby. We also talk often about who we think will be the recipient of Corby. I dream of it being a child because she is so used to our kids,” Ashley says. “Just knowing she is going to be of such great service to someone makes it OK.”  

Karen Sardina

Flower Mound residents Karen Sardina and her husband, Eric; daughter, Madeleine; and son, James, are raising their first Canine Companion puppy, Geneva, and expect to have her until August 2019.

“I found out about Canine Companions from my sister-in-law, who is raising her 10th puppy right now,” Karen says. “I’ve been a stay-at-home mom since our daughter was born. Now that my kids are grown and soon to be on their own, I felt like I needed a new focus and a daily purpose. Canine Companions was the perfect fit,” she says.

Karen says her family is enjoying raising Geneva.

“Our daughter was away at college for a lot of these first several months that we’ve had Geneva, but she loves playing with her and cuddling with her. Our son helps a lot with Geneva. His task the very first weekend was to sleep next to her crate so she wasn’t scared being by herself and taking her outside to go to the bathroom frequently. He still helps with the basics, and he is the ‘official bather.’”

She says though Canine Companions puppies have the same basic needs as other pets, they are held to a much higher standard.

“It’s very different,” she says. “The Canine Companions puppy can seldom just wander around the house. They are learning to be near humans and to behave calmly in every situation. I often have Geneva on the leash around the house as I do laundry, go get the mail or bring in the trash cans.”

Though Karen says her family will miss Geneva when she leaves, they are excited for Geneva to help others.  

“One of our mottos at Canine Companions is they are puppies with a purpose. She had a greater purpose than just being a pal that goes on walks or takes naps. She can help someone live a more independent, fulfilling life,” Karen says. “I compare it to my children. If I’ve raised them right, and they’ve learned at school or college, I wouldn’t keep them home to just hang out and watch Netflix with me. I would want them to go out and have a career and a full life.”

For more information about Canine Companions, visit CCI.org.