Conway couple enjoys ‘puppy love’

Published 9:01 pm Friday, June 4, 2010

MURFREESBORO — At a first glance, Saundra looks like your typical Labrador Retriever as she calmly rests at Becky Flynn’s feet.

However, there’s more to Saundra than meets the eye. Throughout her lifetime, the now 10-month-old pup will have two lives. The first will be temporally spent with Becky and her husband, Errol, and the next life will be her forever home as there is a good chance she’ll spend it as a canine companion to someone living with a disability.

On a Tuesday morning, Saundra is accompanying the Flynns, a Conway couple, to breakfast at Walter’s Grill in Murfreesboro.

Despite the Lab appearing to be peacefully in dreamland throughout the whole of breakfast, Mrs. Flynn reassured that Saundra was, indeed, being trained at that very moment.

The Flynns are volunteer puppy raisers for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a non-profit organization that provides highly-skilled companion dogs, free of charge, for children and adults living with disabilities. CCI develops four types of dogs including service dogs, hearing dogs, facility dogs and skilled companions.

The visit to the restaurant is yet another way Saundra can be socialized, accustoming her to being in public with her future owner.

“We have high hopes for her,” said Mrs. Flynn about Saundra.

“We hope she goes and make them as happy as she’s made us,” said Mr. Flynn.

The Flynns said the docile Lab is showing many positive characteristics needed by canine companions, including being laid back, patient and good with children. Saundra has been with the Flynns since she was eight weeks old and during her 13-18 month stay with the couple she will learn basic obedience training and socialization.

“Everything is positive training; we teach them 30 commands, we socialize them,” said Mrs. Flynn. “We try to take them everywhere we go.”

Saundra’s past social events have included places like churches, hospitals, rest homes, ball games, two graduations and even a ballet recital.

When her first wave of training is completed, Saundra will be transported to Orlando, Fla. (one of five regional CCI training facilities located in the nation) and there she will initially go through a temperament test and then spend the next six to nine months in a program with professional trainers. Saundra will need to learn more than 40 specialized commands in order to pass on to Team Training where the dogs are matched with an adult or child with a disability.

The training in Florida is rigorous and, according to the Flynns, only one-third of the dogs pass to go on to be canine companions.

Saundra is the fourth puppy that the Flynns have raised for the organization. They’ve been involved with CCI since 2004, but Mrs. Flynn’s interest came three years earlier when she met a puppy raiser.

“And I asked, ‘How can I do this’,” she recalled.

For Mrs. Flynn it was the perfect opportunity to keep doing what both her and her husband had done in their careers. Both are retired school teachers who live on a farm and raised horses.

“It was just a natural progression for me to go from teaching kids to teaching dogs,” said Mrs. Flynn.

While Becky was on board with the idea, Errol, on the other hand, was hesitant. He said his wife has a knack for wanting to do something for everyone.

“I just didn’t want something else,” he said.

“He didn’t think he could give the dog up,” she said.

Mr. Flynn added he was unaware of what canine companions could do or the impact they could have on their owners.

A turning point for him came visiting a friend who is in a wheelchair. The Flynns had just raised their first CCI puppy, Murphie, and were debating whether or not to raise another.

“He said, ‘I want you to understand everyday you put it off it keeps someone like me from getting a dog’,” recalled Mr. Flynn.

In addition, seeing the trained dogs begin their lives with their new owners made (and continues to make) another impact on Errol.

“If you go there and see them with the children and their parents…that’s why we got another puppy,” he said.

Murphie passed “doggy boot camp” and went on to be placed with a young girl named Emma, who lives with a spinal condition.

The Flynns said Murphie helps Emma in everyday tasks from picking up her clothes to taking off her socks and opening doors. The dog even helps Emma and her family while grocery shopping by fetching cans off the shelf and placing them in the cart.

The next two puppies the Flynns raised, Nika and Zyla, did not pass training in Florida.

“It’s the most devastating thing for them is to call back and say your dog didn’t make it,” said Mrs. Flynn. “We just try to keep our heads straight. …We do the best we can do.”

“We always want them to pass,” said Mr. Flynn.

Even though the last two dogs became did not become canine companions through CCI, they became pets for two local families. The couple said Zyla’s owner recently put her through the American Kennel Club’s Good Citizen program, which is often the first step towards becoming a therapy dog.

The couple agreed that raising and training a CCI puppy is a 24/7 job.

“Everything is a part of her training,” said Mrs. Flynn about Saundra.

A vital part of the puppies’ training is teaching them to walk on a loose leash. The couple uses a gentle leader, a harness-like leash that attaches around her mouth. Becky noted it is not a muzzle like many people perceive it as. Saundra’s getup is topped off with a Canine Companions cape.

Even though the couple lives on a farm, Saundra is kept on a leash the majority of the time and she’s trained to sleep in a crate. And while most would consider this to be atypical, it’s integral to training the dog for their future.

“They (CCI) want the person to be the most important thing in their (the dog’s) life,” said Mrs. Flynn.

But Errol insists it is not all work and no play. The Flynns have two dogs of their own to keep Saundra company and the woods on their property provides much entertainment for the Lab.

“We want people to understand she’s not in solitary confinement,” he jested.

The work the Flynns do with the CCI puppies is purely volunteer. They receive no monetary compensation and are responsible for purchasing food and paying for veterinarian care for the animal.

The couple notes they have caught break on the latter with help from Dr. Peggy Johnson at her Gatesville based clinic who has cared for Saundra and the other dogs.

“Peggy says that’s one way she can give to CCI,” said Mr. Flynn.

The Flynns argue they do get compensation for what they do, only it’s not in dollar bills.

“We get love everyday,” said Mrs. Flynn.

For Mr. Flynn, compensation comes when he sees the dogs placed with their forever friend.

“Their whole life blossoms,” he said. “When you pass over that leash there’s no greater feeling.”

The Flynns’ work with CCI doesn’t stop with training puppies. Each year the couple mixes their passion for horses and training companion dog as they hold a weekend 20-mile trail ride each April that attracts approximately 100 people and their horses. All of the proceeds go toward CCI. The event in its fourth year has raised more than $10,000 for the organization.

With all the work they do with CCI, perhaps the most important next to training canine companions is educating the public on companion dogs and the American Disability Act, which includes the allowance of service dogs in public places among other rights for the disabled.

When the Flynns began training CCI puppies they admit they had a hard time in the area simply because people didn’t know anything about canine companions. Since then, the majority of the community has rallied around the CCI puppy trainers and Saundra is a regular to many restraints.

A scheduled upcoming visit will bring Saundra and the Flynns to Willis-Hare Elementary School in Pendleton. The couple will be speaking to students about companion dogs.

“It teaches young people how to react to service dogs,” said Mrs. Flynn.

As Saundra shows off the commands she’s learned so far, it’s easy to see why the Flynns have such high hopes for her. And while it’s tough to say goodbye to each puppy they raise, the Flynn’s know what is waiting in the dog’s next life is truly what they are destined for.

“Many people wish for a miracle,” said Mrs. Flynn. “We raise a miracle one dog at a time.”