Open Your Eyes to the Heroes You Know

Daniel, one of my personal heroes, with Casey.

There are definitely heroes that walk among us…and my best friend Suki Janisch, her husband Kurt, and their 17-year-old son Daniel are among them. I’ve actually known this for quite a while, but it was front and center and in my face this past Saturday morning when I attended a Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) Graduation Ceremony held at Sea World in Orlando.

CCI provides highly trained assistance dogs for children and adults with disabilities, free of charge. They believe the “most advanced technology capable of transforming the lives of people with disabilities has a cold nose and a warm heart!” According to their literature, “Volunteer puppy raisers provide specially bred puppies a safe home, take them to obedience classes, serve up a healthy diet, provide socialization opportunities, and give lots of love.”

The Janischs and Nicholas at SEGD Headquarters.

The Janischs volunteer with Southeastern Guide Dogs (SEGD) whose mission is “to create and nurture a partnership between a visually impaired individual and a guide dog, facilitating life’s journey with mobility, independence and dignity.” Like CCI, SEGD relies heavily on Puppy Raisers to make their programs work. SEGD has three programs that pair professionally trained guide dogs with individuals including Paws for Independence for visually impaired individuals; Paws for Patriots for visually impaired veterans or those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; as well as providing  facility therapy dogs to various U.S.  military hospitals; and Gifted Canines for law-enforcement agencies, hospitals, assisted-living facilities, nursing homes, schools and individuals with special needs providing dogs that participate in narcotic or arson detection, search and rescue, therapy and other specialized careers.

Casey was quite the adorable puppy and now, all-grown,  awaits teaming with her recipient.

In 2001, Suki, Kurt, and then six-year-old Daniel volunteered to become SEGD Puppy Raisers and received their first puppy, Port, a beautiful yellow Goldador – a cross between a Black Lab and a Golden Retriever. Goldador’s are specially bred to possess the best of both breeds – intelligence and strong hips – making for healthier dogs that will hopefully live a long life and provide valuable service for a number of years.

The Janischs, along with all of their friends, myself included, bonded and heaped loads of love upon Port. The family followed strict guidelines with Port, taught her basic commands, and attended twice-monthly SEGD meetings. As a commercial pilot, Kurt is away from home quite a bit and as a stay-at-home mom, Suki naturally shouldered the majority of the puppy raising work. Both CCI and SEGD puppies wear special coats signifying they are service dogs and learn valuable socialization skills by accompanying  their families wherever they go including the grocery store, church, the mall, restaurants, ball games, doctor appointments, and so forth. With SEGD, puppy raising can last for a period of up to 20 months at which point comes the fateful day when they turn over the dogs for more intense training and eventual teaming with their recipients.

One of the SEGD Training Classes including Kurt and Nicholas (far right).

At the time, I clearly recall Suki communicating that Port’s “turn over date” was fast approaching and once the actual day arrived, we were all quite morose and saddened; no one more so than Suki, Kurt, and Daniel, as they had truly just handed over a beloved family member. SEGD places dogs in the Gifted Canines program only if they do not meet the specific criteria for becoming guide dogs. Port, who didn’t like loud noises, matriculated into the Gifted Canine Program and currently works in the Miami International Airport sniffing out incoming drugs.

Suki and Kurt feel their only child Daniel has everything he wants or needs and believed the Puppy Raising Program would teach the importance of giving back to others. At six, Daniel naturally felt the emotions of parting with Port quite intensely. So before accepting a new puppy, Suki and Kurt consulted with Daniel to make sure he was on board with the plan.

Monte harnessed and ready for training.

Following Daniel’s approval, as is typical of many Puppy Raisers, the Janischs then immediately volunteered to accept their next dog and this tradition has held throughout the years. In addition to Port, they have raised Gino, Vi, Nicholas, Monte, and Casey. Each of these puppies was equally adorable and special and totally loved. I’ve felt this family’s pain as they’ve bravely counted down the days when they’d turn over each cherished dog for advanced training and matching with a needy recipient.

Suki relates she is most proud of what they have passed on to Daniel. “He has learned the valuable lesson that you should sacrifice what you want in your heart for the good of less fortunate people.”  Once he received his driver’s license, Daniel took it upon himself to take full responsibility of Casey, their newest puppy, and he personally took charge of her training and attended the meetings with her.

For a variety of reasons, SEGD occasionally releases dogs from its program. Of course, Puppy Raisers are at the top of the list to receive the released dogs back into their families. This occurred twice for the Janischs, as they retained both Vi and Monte. Vi, let go due to a hip injury, and Monte, released because he, along with his litter mates, could never get used to wearing the harness.

I was emotional walking into the building for CCI’s graduation and grabbed my boyfriend Don’s hand a bit tighter as we found seats close to the front. I even let him in on how I was feeling as I was already teary eyed and the program had not even started.

CCI Puppy Raisers on stage during the emotional graduation ceremony.

As part of the CCI’s ceremony, the individual puppies and their “Puppy Raising Families” paraded across the stage with many dogs sporting mortar boards signifying them as graduates. There was not a dry eye in the audience as a brave, six-year-old little girl wiped away tears as she stood on stage holding her mother’s hand and lovingly petting the puppy they had so proudly raised. Later in the program, a video provided attendees with a glimpse into the lives of the families and their “matriculating puppies” at home. Now I ask you…who doesn’t fall in love with a puppy with big eyes and overgrown paws? Each puppy was cuter than the next; if that is even possible.

CCI’s ceremony progressed to an introduction of the recipients and their families and another video presentation shared their introduction to the puppies and provided a glimpse of their two-week, intensive training program. Both shows were heart wrenching and resulted in an openly emotional and teary eyed audience. I, of course, was quite the mess.

CCI recipients from throughout the U.S. looking forward to the "Passing of the Leash."

The final part of CCI’s ceremony included a “Passing of the Leash” where the Puppy Raisers formally hand the leashed dogs over to their new owners for the final time. The process had come full circle and the Puppy Raisers met the recipient and their families and saw first-hand the rewards of their love, hard work, and sacrifice. As the Puppy Raisers departed the stage, many of the dogs looked longingly back at their families as they eventually turned with wagging tails to their new owners. Don remarked at the touching scene repeated with most of the dogs. Suki believes in that moment “the dogs truly realize people on both sides of the leash want them, but know where they are needed the most.”

The Janischs were highly rewarded when they turned over their beloved dog Nicholas to a soldier visually impaired during the Gulf War. In my opinion and at that moment in time, there were four heroes present…the brave American soldier taking hold of Nicholas’ leash and Suki, Kurt, and Daniel Janisch, brave Puppy Raisers for SEGD.

Heroes, they are out there among us and I am fortunate that I only have to look at my best friend Suki and her family to find some.

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