More than a dog
From the moment he was born, Adler was chosen to be a special kind of dog.
Adler is a half golden retriever, half lab mix that is being trained to be a service dog. And if all goes according to plan, in less than two years, Adler will be paired with a person who will benefit from his special skills: A wounded veteran, a person in a wheelchair or a child with a disability.
But whoever that person might be, it will be Adler's job to use his skills and training in helping someone live a freer, fuller and richer life.
But before the service comes the training.
That training officially began at the end of January, when he was delivered into the arms of Amy Stern as an 8-week pup. Stern is a veterinarian technician at Quarry Hill Park Animal Hospital, but she doubles as a puppy raiser.
Being a puppy raiser is like a full-time job but longer. Because wherever Stern goes, Adler goes. When Stern sleeps, Adler sleeps in a kennel in the same room with her. When Stern goes to work, Adler follows in tow.
Adler will spend the first 15 months of life being trained under Stern's tutelage. Yet, Stern's role is only an intermediate step to get Adler prepared for the next stage in his training. After Stern, Adler will be sent to one of Canine Companions for Independence 's schools for advanced training.
Stern's role is akin to a drill sergeant, but one who occasionally scratches your chin and gives you a treat. Her job is to take her raw recruit and mold him into an elite kind of dog, one that is disciplined, stable and, above all else, obedient. By the time he moves on to advanced training, Adler will know 40 one-word commands and obey them all implicitly. At least that's the goal.
"Canine Companions set a really high standard, a really high bar, so he's in constant training," Stern said.
'No' all day long
As Stern talks, her sharp trainer's eye rarely strays from her canine charge. Dogs at Adler's stage brim with all kinds of playful instincts. They want to play. They want to chase after balls. They want to mix it up with other dogs. Adler has to learn how to suppress those tendencies. So every time, Adler whines, lunges at another dog or misbehaves, Stern issues a firm, "No." It's a word Adler hears a lot.
"It's literally all day long. He goes potty on command. He sits and waits on his food on command. He kennels on command. He gets into the car on command," Stern said.
The need for a dog that is unswervingly obedient is dictated by the people these dogs serve. For service dogs to be useful to, say, a person in a wheelchair, a service dog must be immune from distractions. There can't be a time when the dog can't be relied upon. And since a slip-up could potentially lead to catastrophic circumstances, their room for error is practically nil.
It's one reason why CCI can be so ruthless in weeding out dogs that fall short of their standards. At the advanced training stage, trainers will reject dogs for any number of reasons — for medical issues, allergies, health concerns or for behavioral issues or quirks. At graduation time, fewer than 40 percent of dogs that entered advanced training will graduate and be paired with someone.
In one particularly diabolical test, CCI trainers will scatter 100 colorful balls across a floor and command the dog to turn off a light switch. To do so, though, requires the dog to pad across the floor without giving into his temptation to play with one of the balls.
"CCI throws everything at these dogs," Stern said. "They literally push them to their breaking point, so they can see how far these dogs can be pushed. (They need to know) that the dogs can be pushed and pushed and pushed without shutting down."
Stern has been a puppy raiser since a student at John Marshall High School. She estimates having raised about 22 dogs for advanced training, and of those, about one-third have gone to become service dogs. There is disappointment, she admits, when one of her dogs falls short. (The dog ends up being placed as a pet with one lucky family).
But there is nothing like the feeling when your dog makes the grade, Stern said. Because for that one person who is teamed up with the dog, his or her life has become immeasurably improved.
"You just need one dog to graduate before you come back for more. I'm not kidding you," Stern said.