Ask any dog owner and they will tell you how much their furry friend is part of the family. For some dog owners, their dogs are much more than companions—they can be true helpers.
“Cannoli has been life-changing for me,” said Paige Behanna about her service dog, a yellow Labrador retriever.
For three years, Cannoli has been assisting Behanna, who has cerebral palsy. Cannoli helps Behanna carry, retrieve, and pick up various items. “She can even fetch my crutches for me,” she said.
Cannoli is a Canine Service Pals’ dog, a nonprofit that assists physically disabled individuals with service animals. The organization was created five years ago, according to Ivy Fodor, founder, as the “helping” arm of her for-profit business, Parkway Pet Lodge.
“We were doing so well and were looking for a way to give back. When our trainer joked, ‘What if we train a rescue dog to be a service dog?’ the more we talked about it, the more we realized it was a good idea,” Fodor said.
She had been volunteering with Beaver County Humane Society for years, so it was natural that she reached out to that organization. Her trainer, Dan Grachen, was soon busy training a rescue dog from the shelter when they decided that this wouldn’t be a one-time effort.
“While we were working with our first dog, we realized that we weren’t stopping with one so we decided to form a nonprofit,” Fodor said.
Fodor, Grachen and Robert Caponi, Fodor’s husband and co-owner of Parkway Pet Lodge, decided that they would assist those with mobility issues because at the time, they were collaborating with an orthopedic physician who referred a young lady who could use a service animal. Grachen also had experience training dogs for autistic children.
The process for training a service animal is not quick or easy, and it takes a wealth of assistance. In addition to Grachen or one of their other trainers working with a dog for 12 to 18 months, Canine Service Pals has a whole team of volunteer puppy trainers, people who raise, socialize, and train a puppy until they are permanently placed with an individual.
“Our puppy raisers are remarkable people. They take a puppy into their home, work with them and love them, knowing full well that they will turn them over,” Fodor said. The puppy raisers have the dogs between one and two years on average.
There is also the tricky task of matching the dog to the right person.
“Each person is different. We may have a great applicant but not the right dog for their needs,” Fodor explained.
Once an applicant and a dog are paired, one of the trainers will work with them for an average of four months to train that animal for the new owner’s specific needs.
Behanna and Cannoli trained together for about a year before Cannoli came home with her.
Once the team is paired and trained, the process is far from over. There is ongoing training to maintain the dog’s ability to serve; Behanna and Cannoli usually train every two to three months.
During the pandemic, shelter dogs became scarce so Fodor reached out to breeders for donations of puppies. “We received several purebred dogs, but we don’t really care if they are purebred or not. We look for intelligent, dedicated dogs,” she said.
Fodor estimates that to date, they have placed about 15 dogs with their new owners. Several dogs are now with puppy raisers, or in the training or matching stages. A fun task for all is naming the dogs.
“We decided in the beginning that the dogs would have food names. It is a club that they belong to, so we wanted a theme,” Fodor said. They ask for suggestions from everyone involved and usually the puppy raiser picks the final name.
As a nonprofit, Canine Service Pals depends on donations and fundraisers to assist with costs. “We are also looking for company sponsors; we think it would be fun to have a company sponsor a puppy and they could have a contest for their employees to choose a name,” said Fodor.
She added that they are looking for three things: “We need applicants, we need puppy raisers, and we need donations,” she said.
Behanna encourages anyone who could benefit from a service dog like Cannoli to reach out. “Not only do I have a helper, but I also have a best friend,” she said.