There is no such thing as a quick errand for Ewing residents Brie Alfano and Mike Ehret. Whether they’re running into a convenience store or heading out to a meeting for work, people always stop them to ask about their dog.
Fielding, a seven-month-old Labrador retriever, follows the couple wherever they go. When people see the puppy in his golden cape—marking him as an assistance dog in training—they can’t stop themselves from asking how he is doing, what new things he learned that day, and of course, if they can pet him.
While just about everyone they meet is excited to see him, Fielding himself remains calm. Aside from a few enthusiastic wags of his tail, his paws remain on the floor and he is alert to his commands. He knows when he’s wearing his golden cape and gentle leader, it’s time to work.
Alfano and Ehret are raising Fielding for Canine Companions for Independence, an organization that provides assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities.
The Ewing couple will raise Fielding until he is about a year-and-a-half old. He will then go to a Canine Companions for Independence regional headquarters for six months of advanced training before he is paired with a person with disabilities.
The organization raises four different kinds of assistance dogs—service dogs, hearing dogs, facility dogs and skilled companions — and they recently launched a veterans initiative to pair dogs with veterans who have physical and mental disabilities.
Alfano said being a puppy raiser is a rewarding and humbling experience. “You invest so much in the puppy—so much time, and effort, and love—and you know that there is somebody out there who is going to be even more appreciative of Fielding, someone who will love him more because he will truly change that person’s life,” she said.
Ehret and Alfano have both loved animals for as long as they can remember, agreeing that there is a special bond between humans and dogs.
“I’ve always loved dogs,” Alfano said. “When I was little, my parents asked if I wanted a brother or sister, and I was like ‘No, I want a dog.’”
Alfano joked that her parents didn’t listen and instead gave her a sister, Avery. Her sister was born with cerebral palsy, and while Alfano said Avery was a lot more able bodied than many of her classmates, Alfano still understands the emotional, physical and financial toll that comes along with having a disability. Assistance dogs can relieve some of the emotional and physical burdens of a disability, but they often come at a huge financial cost. Alfano said some assistance dogs can cost families roughly $20,000.
Canine Companions for Independence, however, pairs people with assistance dogs for free. John Bentzinger, a Canine Companions for Independence communications representative, said it costs more than $50,000 to raise and train each dog, and the cost is offset by donations and fundraising. The company maintains full ownership of the dogs until they retire, and each dog has to go through yearly re-certification tests, which are also provided at no cost to the handler.
When Alfano and Ehret learned that Canine Companions for Independence places their dogs with disabled people for free, they knew they had to get involved. Not only do they love dogs, but they fell in love with the idea of doing what they can to help train a service dog for someone in need.
“Most families, unfortunately, who are in need of a service dog of some type are those who can’t afford it,” she said. “So to be able to find an organization that will provide their dogs free of charge was huge for us.”
The couple covers the costs of Fielding’s food, vet bills and transportation expenses. Ehret said caring for Fielding is worth every penny because he knows it will help him one day care for his new owner.
Alfano and Ehret are also responsible for the socialization aspect of Fielding’s training. The dogs aren’t assigned to a specific field until the advanced training stage, but the puppy raisers have to lay the foundation for the dog’s generalized obedience commands. In addition to teaching Fielding—who is the first service dog they’re training—roughly 30 commands, they also need to get him accustomed to as many different situations as possible.
In order for service dogs to be comfortable in any situation with their handler, the dogs must begin socialization at a very young age.
“They found that by the time the puppy is 12 weeks of age, they’ve already formed their opinions that they’ll carry through the rest of their lifetime,” Alfano said. “So during those first few weeks it’s critical to expose them to everything—sights, sounds, people.”
With so much time and attention given to the dogs, being a puppy raiser is a full-time job. Alfano and Ehret both work at V.J. Scozzari & Sons, Inc. in Pennington—Alfano is a BIM manager and Ehret is a project manager—and before they applied to volunteer they had to receive the OK from their bosses to bring Fielding into work.
“The whole purpose of having puppies at such a young age is their socialization. Because of that you can’t have a dog home because they’re not learning, they’re not being socialized to other experiences,” Alfano said. “If it wasn’t for our employer agreeing to have Fielding in the office every day, it wouldn’t be something that we’d be able to do.”
Ehret and Alfano knew that raising Fielding was going to be lot of work, but they were surprised by how easy it has been so far. Canine Companions for Independence, which was established in 1975, has its own breeding program. According to the company’s website, it currently has 156 breeder dogs and 1,252 active puppies being raised to become assistance dogs. However, due to high standards for the dogs, only four out of every 10 dogs make it all the way through the program.
Ehret and Alfano said they had smart dogs growing up, but none of them compare to Fielding.
“You can see that he’s processing and understanding what it is that you’re asking of him, and he responds and it’s repeatable after that,” Alfano said.
Fielding picks up on things so quickly, the hardest part of training him might be the attention he receives from other people. In an effort to keep Fielding focused on his commands, Alfano and Ehret have nicknamed him Frank. When people ask what their dog’s name is as he is learning new training tools in public, they use the name Frank so Fielding stays on task.
“We’ve nicknamed him Frank because Frank has no meaning to him,” Alfano said. “When he hears his name he’s supposed to stop what he’s doing and make eye contact with whoever called him. If we’re in the middle of a training session and he’s in a command, he ignores the person calling him Frank and focuses on us.”
They introduce all of Fielding’s commands through positive reinforcement both at home and in public. Fielding is still just seven months old, but the time spent practicing his commands in public has already starting to pay off. Alfano said he’s not bothered by loud noises, large crowds, or even the occasional small child that runs up and grabs him to play. Fielding also gets along well with other animals, including the couple’s other dog and cats.
Fielding’s popularity has grown tremendously since he first came to town. He even has his own Instagram account, fielding2_cci, which has more than 260 followers. Ehret said when they go out they may have to tack on some extra “Fielding time” to answer questions about their dog, but that sacrifice is nothing compared to the work Fielding will be doing with his future handler.
Fielding’s local celebrity status may make it that much harder for Alfano and Ehret to say goodbye when he goes off to his advanced training. Even though they’ve fallen in love with Fielding, they know one day he will move on to help another family.
Bentzinger said many puppy raisers draw parallels between raising the dogs and sending a child off to college. The child goes to school to learn a skill, and afterward you hope they move out and find a job to make a difference in the world. The puppy raisers, including Alfano and Ehret, feel the same way about their dogs.
Alfano and Ehret have fallen in love with Fielding, and while they’re not sure they will ever be fully prepared to say goodbye to him, knowing he’s leaving to change someone’s life makes it all worth while.
“One of our coworkers always said when we brought him in that you could tell he knew that he had a bigger purpose,” Alfano said. “And I kind of laughed because I thought she was biased because he’s such a cute puppy, but it’s true. It’s as if he knows he’s here to do something special. He really does know.”