By Daniel J. Vance MS, LPCC
She grew up with disability being part of her life. Christina Montalbano, 24, of Middletown, New Jersey, said in a telephone interview, “My brother uses a wheelchair. He had some issues at birth and ended up an above-knee double amputee. Through him I was introduced to all kinds of people (with disabilities) and so became very accepting of differences in others.”
Montalbano and her brother occasionally visit events for people with disabilities. At an “ability expo” she came across the Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) booth, picked up a brochure, and was asked if she would be interested in raising and pre-training puppies for later use as assistance dogs. It made sense. (She later became a veterinary student at the University of Pennsylvania.)
She said of her CCI volunteer work, “I receive the puppies from Canine Companies for Independence when they are eight weeks old and keep them until they're about 18 months. During that time, I'm responsible for housebreaking, crate training, obedience teaching, and socialization. At 18 months, I return them to (CCI) for six-to-nine months of additional training with a professional trainer.” The dog and person receiving the dog also receive two weeks together training. Currently, Montalbano has been raising her eleventh puppy.
She said, “I get to meet the people the dogs end up with, which is one of the great things about (CCI). My first dog is living with a gentleman in Boston, and not only does he use the dog for himself, but he also works as a special education teacher. So his dog does double duty, working with students as well. I had another dog placed with a 12-year-old boy. For him the dog was an icebreaker in social situations, a really great companion, and a helper with doing physical things, such as picking up dropped items for him, opening and closing doors, and carrying objects for him.”
She said CCI had six regional centers training and placing hundreds of dogs a year, had about 1,000 people raising puppies and about 3,000 overall volunteers.
According to its website, Canine Companions for Independence of Santa Rosa, California, is the “largest nonprofit provider of assistance dogs, and is recognized worldwide for the excellence of its dogs, and the quality and longevity of the matches it makes between dogs and people. The result is a life full of increased independence and loving companionship.”
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