Lisa Feder’s new puppy has her Princeton Collection neighbors talking. When she takes the 4-month-old Labrador retriever for walks around the block, just about everyone is excited to stop and meet their newest neighbor, Riley. However, if all goes as planned, Riley won’t be living in Plainsboro for very long.
Feder and her husband, Roy Kowalski, are volunteer puppy raisers for Canine Companions for Independence, an organization that provides assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities. As puppy raisers, the Plainsboro couple will care for Riley, train her and get her accustomed to a wide variety of situations to one day have her become an assistance dog for a person in need.
“I always was enamored with working dogs and I thought that the jobs they did and what they offered to their companions was amazing,” Feder said.
Feder, who works at home for a medical communications company, has wanted to raise a service dog for some time now, and this year the timing was finally right for her family. Her elder daughter went away to college at Montclair University, and her younger daughter is attending High School North. When Feder heard about Canine Companions through Facebook, she knew it was the perfect opportunity to get involved.
Canine Companions for Independence raises four kinds of assistance dogs—service dogs, hearing dogs, facility dogs and skilled companions. They also have a veterans initiative to pair dogs with veterans who have physical and mental disabilities.
Feder and Kowalski chose Canine Companions for Independence because they pair people with assistance dogs for free.
John Bentzinger, Canine Companions for Independence public relations and marketing coordinator, 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 recertification tests.
“It’s a huge amount of money to raise a dog from birth to the time it gets turned over [to their new handler], and Canine Companions for Independence provides them to the recipients for absolutely no charge, which is amazing,” Feder said. “Their facilities are beautiful. They’re very warm, very welcoming. You can just tell how much they love these dogs.”
It didn’t take the Plainsboro family long to fall in love with Riley. Feder described her as a funny little pup who has an adventurous and curious spirit.
“I remember the time when she was a little puppy, and we have a full length mirror and she looked at herself and she started playing with herself in the mirror,” she said. “She just rolls over and does flips, she’s just a crazy little dog.”
However, unlike other puppies who are always hyperactive, Riley is attentive, hardly ever barks and listens to her owners commands.
“I’ve been so amazing by how smart she is,” Feder said. “At eight or nine weeks old she learned how to sit, she learned how to lie down, and I was just so amazed that she was able to pick up so quickly on some of the commands.”
Feder attributes her excellent behavior to Canine Companions for Independence’s breeding program. According to Bentzinger, the organization currently has more than 147 breeder dogs and 1,244 active puppies being raised to become assistance dogs.
Riley’s good behavior has rubbed off on Feder’s other dog, a 7-year-old Labrador, who sees Riley get rewarded for her behavior and wants to join in on this new fun.
“Everything is done through positive reinforcement,” Feder said.
Feder and Kowalski are responsible for teaching Riley roughly 40 commands. These range from general commands—sit and stay—to more advanced commands, such as knowing how and when to jump in and out of a car or specific location.
‘You go into it with your eyes fully wide open that you’re not going to have the dog forever.’
The Plainsboro family also has to get Riley accustomed to as many different situations as possible. For service dogs to be comfortable wherever their handler might need them, the dogs must begin their socialization at a very young age. This includes going into restaurants, businesses, crowded parks and venues, and being around all different kinds of people and animals.
As a 4-month-old, Riley is just starting to enter into businesses and other crowded public spaces, but Feder said everyone in the community has been very welcoming and understanding so far. When Riley is out, she wears her yellow cape and a gentle leader, letting the public know she’s an assistance dog in training. It also lets Riley know she’s working. When the cape and gentle leader come off, Riley understands it’s time to play.
Riley will stay in Plainsboro until she’s about a year-and-a-half old. She’ll then travel to a Canine Companions for Independence regional headquarters in Long Island for six months of advanced training before she is paired with a person with disabilities.
Feder knows giving up Riley is going to be hard, but understanding her bigger purpose makes it easier.
“You go into it with your eyes fully wide open that you’re not going to have the dog forever,” she said. Her family knows Riley’s ultimate goal is to be matched with a person with disabilities to help improve their life, and they look forward to hopefully one day seeing her fulfill her quest.
“Letting Riley go will be hard, but then you meet families of children who have disabilities and these dogs have made such a difference in their lives,” she said. “They say ‘thank you so much for being a puppy raiser because you being a puppy raiser enables my daughter to have a dog, and it’s made such a big difference in their life.’ I don’t even know these people and they’re thanking me, and I feel so humbled by that.”