Canine Companions Help Those with Disabilities

By Lauren Wanko

Assistance dog Orson opens refrigerator doors and cabinets, hands a wallet over to cashiers, picks up everything from remote controls to empty cups and so much more. He’s become part of the Bratnik household.

“He’s basically one of the my best friends. He has helped me to open up more to people about having a disability, and living with a disability and helped me to get a sense of normalcy, ‘Ok, I am normal,'” said Kimberly Bratnik.

25-year-old college student Bratnik has cerebral palsy. She has limited use of her legs and arms. Seven years ago her parents discovered Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit that breeds, raises and trains assistance dogs for those with physical disabilities other than blindness.

The nonprofit uses labs and golden retrievers and crosses of the two breeds. It costs more than $50,000 per dog, but it’s free to all recipients. Canine Companions is funded by individuals, corporations and foundations. Orson and Kim go everywhere together. He’s been on cruises and loves Disney World.

“I’ve seen Kim grow. I’ve seen Kim become independent,” said mom Louise Bratnik.

“When Kim started to go to college, she was the kid in the wheelchair and people shied away. Then she started bringing Orson and people wanted to come over and find out about Orson. Then she became Kim, oh by the way she a service dog,” said dad Dennis Bratnik.

When the dogs reach about eight weeks old they’re adopted by volunteer puppy raisers. The volunteers take the pups into their homes and teach them basic commands and socialization skills by taking them to restaurants, on shopping trips and other outings.

The Bratnik’s are determined to raise awareness about the organization which is why they travel all over the state to give presentations and fund raise. They’re also puppy raisers. This is their third dog, Sutter. He’s six months old and he’ll stay here until next November.

“Puppy raising is like eating potato chips; you just can’t raise one,” said Louise.

When the dogs are about one and a half years old they head back to one of Canine Companions regional headquarters. Then they start six months of advanced training. Only about four out of 10 dogs graduate. They learn more than 40 commands useful to a person with disabilities. In the meantime, human applicants go through a thorough interview process.

“While we’re training the dogs we are getting a very thorough understanding of their lifestyle and needs, so that when the appropriate dog is ready for the class we would invite you to participate in that class,” said Debra Dougherty, executive director for Canine Companions for the northeast region.

Kim and others spend two weeks in team training with the dogs.

“The dogs are already trained, so it’s smart dog stupid human,” Dennis said.

The dogs must undergo re-certification tests every year. Canine Companions places assistance dogs in other facilities like hospitals and rehab centers, and with wounded veterans. Kim’s looks forward to one day accepting her college diploma with Orson by her side.

“People like me are capable of doing anything we want, and our service dogs are an extension of that. They help us to accomplish and do these amazing superhero tasks,” Kimberly said.