SANDPOINT — For those with disabilities, dogs serve as their hands, eyes or ears. They are also a source of love and support.
"They can actually change the life of people who are working through their disabilities," said Lilly Mitsui of Sagle.
Mitsui is a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence, a nationwide, nonprofit organization founded in 1975. The organization provides highly-trained dogs to men, women and kids with all types of disabilities except blindness — Guide Dogs for the Blind has provided that service since 1942.
Canine Companions for Independence breeds, raises and trains golden retrievers, labrador retriever or a cross of the two to perform all sorts of tasks for their handlers.
"We are the largest and most successful organization of our kind," said Michelle Williams, public relations and marketing coordinator Canine Companions for Independence.
With a passion for puppy raising, Mitsui is bringing awareness about Canine Companions for Independence to North Idaho after moving to the area from Seattle.
"I've been fortunate enough that I have been very welcomed into a lot of the civic groups ... many different organizations have allowed me to do a presentation, and my goal has been trying to get more puppy raisers," Mitsui said. "Because without the basic puppy raiser, you have no service dog."
The good news, Mitsui said, is she has found one recruit who has applied to raise a puppy in Sandpoint area and will be getting her puppy in the next few weeks. Also, she said, a trainer is now in place locally, so while she went to Seattle regularly to attend classes with her pups, that is no longer the case.
In her mission to get more puppy raisers, Mitsui is offering a "workshop" in Sandpoint this month for people to learn about Canine Companions for Independence, what the dogs do and what it takes to become a puppy raiser — the commitment, the challenges and the rewards. And anyone can be a puppy raiser.
"It's really welcome to anyone as long as they have the desire and the willingness — it's a huge commitment," Williams said.
As a puppy raiser, Mitsui gets the pups at 8 weeks old and raised them until they are about 16 months. During that time, Mitsui said, she teaches the dogs basic obedience, good behavior, and socializing in public places. Afterward, they go into the care of an advanced trainer for six to nine months. During advanced training, Mitsui said some of the "best trainers in the world" continue the basic skills and teach the enhanced skills for training.
Canine Companions for Independence train four types of assistance dogs — service dogs, skilled companions, facility dogs, and hearing dogs.
Service dogs are trained to perform "practical tasks," Williams said, for adults with physical disabilities. The service dogs open and close doors, turn lights on and off, pull wheelchairs and retrieve items to deliver to their handler. Skilled companions are trained much in the same way as a service dog, but use the skills in a different way, Williams said. They are typically for children, so the dog is part of a three-part team handled by a parent or guardian.
Hearing dogs are trained to alert people who are deaf or hard of hearing to sounds in their environment.
"So the dog actually nudges the person on the leg or the arm while they are seated or standing, and then takes them to the sound," Williams said.
Facility dogs are used in a wide variety of settings, including occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, special education, courthouses and more.
Ken, the Bonner County Courthouse dog, was obtained by the Bonner County Prosecutor's Office through Canine Companions for Independence and the Courthouse Dogs Foundation. The black labrador/golden retriever mix was specifically trained to quietly lay at the feet of a witness and provide a source of comfort and reassurance during testimony. While Mitsui's most recent pup, Falcon, was in town, Ken even showed him the ropes at the courthouse.
There are six advanced training facilities across the country, but Mitsui takes her pups back to Santa Rosa, where the organization was founded and is headquartered, for training. Falcon has been in advanced training there for about three months, she said.
The dogs are valued at $50,000 when they complete their training, she said, and are provided to those with disabilities at no charge.
Mitsui's workshop is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Aug. 22 at 227 S. First Avenue in Sandpoint — the large white house next to Verizon.
Information on Canine Companions for Independence: cci.org. For workshop information, email Lilly Mitsui at email@example.com.
Mary Malone can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.