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Chester County Press

Canine Partners for Life: 25 years of changing lives

04/07/2015 12:44PM ● By Steven Hoffman



Newark, Del. resident Sarah Vible was diagnosed with epilepsy during her sophomore year at the University of Delaware. Her family reached out to Canine Partners for Life and she was paired with Rosebud, a friendly four-legged companion that alerts her when she is about to have a seizure. Mike Stracka, also a Newark resident, relies on his dog, Annabelle, for many tasks that he can't do on his own. In Georgia, a service dog named Rollo helps Danielle, a high school senior, walk on her own further than she has in years, and warns her of impending cataplexy episodes. Derrick, who lives in Illinois, relies on Patrick to alert him when he is about to suffer from a seizure. Hannah, who has Muscular Dystophy, relies on Saffron to help her get around the West Chester University campus as she works to complete her degree.

For people like Sarah and Mike and Danielle and Derrick and Hannah, the dogs are more than constant companions. They are heroes. Sometimes, they save lives. They always make lives better.

Vible was caught in a vicious cycle after she was diagnosed with epilepsy last year. One of the triggers for seizures is stress. The more seizures she had, the more stress she felt. The more stress she felt, the more seizures she had.

I tried to take medicine to control the seizures,” Vible explained. “The medicine helps, but it doesn't do everything.”

Her family learned about Canine Partners for Life and how the Cochranville, Pa. organization trains dogs to alert people who are about to suffer a seizure.

At first, Vible wasn't sure that she wanted to have an alert dog with her all the time.

It makes my invisible disability very visible,” Vible explained. “I wasn't sure about that.”

Any doubts vanished when she met Rosebud for the first time. The dog was able to begin alerting Sarah when she was about to have a seizure. Sarah also quickly bonded with her canine companion.

Stories like Sarah's are common at Canine Partners for Life.

2015 marks the organization's 25th anniversary, and during that time the CPL staff has trained more than 600 canines to partner with people from around the United States who suffer from a wide range of physical, neurological, and cognitive disabilities, including muscular dystrophy, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, cerebral palsy, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, spinal cord injuries, strokes, seizure disorders, arthritis, spina bifida, Parkinson’s Disease and more. Canine Partners for Life is a leader in the assistance dog industry, and has placed dogs in homes in 46 states.

Canine Partners for Life was founded right here in my home,” Darlene Sullivan explained during an interview in March. Sullivan’s own service dog is nearby. In another room in the house, a litter of three-week-old golden retrievers are eagerly waiting for her attention.

When Sullivan founded Canine Partners for Life in 1989, the service dog industry was still in its infancy. Back then, Sullivan said, service dogs were primarily used to assist people in wheelchairs. There were long waiting lists for the few programs that were out there.

When we started, it was a smaller industry that did not share a lot of ideas,” Sullivan explained. “We continue to find better ways to train. The equipment has improved significantly, so the dogs can do much more now.”

Sullivan remembers getting a call from a woman with multiple sclerosis who had benefited from the help of an assistance dog. She wanted to know if a canine could also help her daughter, who suffered epileptic seizures. Sullivan didn’t know at that time whether Canine Partners for Life could train a dog to provide alerts for seizures, but after some training the organization paired a dog, Misty, with the woman. Once they were together, Misty detected the third seizure and never missed another one, signaling their arrival by crawling on the woman’s lap and refusing to leave.

We were then flooded with applications for alert dogs,” Sullivan explained.

Dogs have proven themselves capable of detecting a variety of ailments, offering new hope to thousands of families. A woman from the Boston area reached out to Canine Partners for Life asking whether an alert dog might help her. She suffered from a cardiac condition that would make her pass out. Sullivan remembers the woman saying, “I can’t go anywhere or do anything because I don’t know when it will happen.”

Canine Partners for Life trained a dog, and after it was paired with the woman it detected the very first episode. The dog remained by her side until retirement.

One thing that I’ve learned over 25 years is that you have to be flexible, to be willing to listen to the needs and learn about the needs that are out there,” Sullivan explained. “The disabilities that we serve are all over the map. We have people coming from all over the country. When you have a disability, the unknowns cause you to turn inward and limit your possibilities. It’s really exciting to see people’s lives turn around.”

Canine Partners for Life started with Sullivan and one dog, Solla, from the Delaware SPCA. Soon, they were joined by a volunteer and the first two donors. Sullivan would meet with each potential recipient herself. Now, there is a team of trainers and staff members, but back then she was handling a lot of the training by herself. Training the dogs has always been a cornerstone of the mission and, according to Sullivan, they need to have certain qualities to succeed—confidence, creativity, and flexibility are at the top of the list.

There is a big difference between training a family pet and training a service dog. Canine Partners for Life has developed a comprehensive training program for the dogs that takes two years to complete. Alert dogs and service dogs must have very specific characteristics in order to be successful. A person might be relying on a service dog to assist in an emergency—perhaps even a life-and-death situation. The service dogs are trained to be gentle, consistent, and focused on their partner.

Not all dogs are suitable to be service dogs, of course. Some canines may be utilized as home companions for people who need them. The CPL staff begins the process of evaluating the dogs when they are six weeks old. CPL has a network of families who will raise the dogs for the first year of their life. Evaluations of the puppies take place throughout the training process.

At any given point in time,” Sullivan explained, “there are 60 puppies in the first year of training.”

Sue Reyes, a resident of Oxford, is one of the people who raises the puppies during their first year.

It’s a 24/7 job,” Reyes said. “It is fun, but it can also be challenging.”

Reyes said that she read and heard about the work of Canine Partners for Life for several years before she explored the possibility of raising a puppy on her own. Like so many of the other volunteers, she was inspired by the work of the dogs, and wanted to help. She is now on her seventh puppy that she has raised.

I knew that I could help fill these puppies with love,” she said. “What’s really rewarding is when you get to talk to a recipient. They are so grateful for getting their lives back.”

Reyes has a grandson, Jacob Yoder, who also helps train the puppies. The Penn’s Grove School student even takes the dog to school with him occasionally so that the dog can get accustomed to a different environment.

I get asked frequently when the dog is coming,” Yoder explained, adding that other students learn that they can’t play with or touch the dog when it’s undergoing the training.

Canine Partners for Life also established a unique program where puppies are trained by prisoners at eight prisons throughout Pennsylvania and Maryland for that all-important first year of their lives.

The foundation is so critical,” Sullivan said, explaining that this training in the first year allows the CPL trainers to focus on more advanced skills that they will need in the second year.

The dogs are taught how to handle a variety of chores, from simple things like picking up dropped objects to more advanced tasks like opening doors, operating lights and elevator buttons. They can take purchases and wallets to a cashier in a store. The dogs can learn how to assist a person with dressing and undressing. They can retrieve a wheelchair or provide balance or momentum to their person. They can provide stability on stairs or rough terrain. They can even assist bed-dependent individuals to move around, preventing bedsores.

By the time the two-year training program is completed, the CPL staff knows each dog very well. This will help them make decisions about who the dogs are eventually placed with.

By the time they leave us, they are exposed to hundreds of people and many different situations,” Sullivan explained. “We’re trying to find the right path for each dog.”

Once a dog is immersed in the training program, the next step is to find the perfect placement.

There is an application process for people who want the assistance of a CPL dog. After working with the dogs for two years, the trainers know the dogs well. The other half of the equation is getting to know the applicants. CPL officials meet with each one. What kind of person is he? What is her lifestyle? Over the course of 25 years, CPL officials have become proficient at matching up a person with the right dog. It starts with making sure that the dog matches the person’s physical needs. A person who stands six-feet-four and needs a service dog that can provide support for balance will need a larger dog.

Beyond the physical match, there must be a personality match as well.

Each dog has an individual personality, just like each person has an individual personality,” Sullivan explained. “When you partner with a dog, it’s a commitment. They are with you wherever you go.”

Vible said that she and Rosebud are a perfect match because they are both smaller and have big personalities with lots of energy.

Canine Partners for Life did a great job of matching me with the perfect dog,” she said. “I have a really good match with her. They take the time to put the right dog with the right person.”

The relationship between a recipient and a dog must be a lasting one, too. Most of the dogs will serve between eight to ten years.

Before a dog is placed with a recipient, they go through a three-week training program together so that they can form a bond and the dogs can be taught how to do tasks that are specific to the person’s needs. For example, a dog might be taught how to retrieve the phone for the partner. This might seem like a simple task, but it’s important, too: In one instance a woman with a CPL dog had a bad fall and was unable to get herself up. Her husband was at work and she was alone in the house. The dog was able to retrieve the phone so that she could get the help she needed.

Sullivan said that the organization is always receiving emails or telephone calls from people who’ve seen their lives change because of their canine companions—they hear from people who’ve finally been able to set aside the cane, or from parents who call crying because their ten-year-old child just slept through the night for the first time.

Stracka suffered a serious injury after a bad fall in 1988, and has been in a wheelchair ever since. It was about eight years after his fall that he was paired with Harmony, his first CPL dog, and it made a big difference in his life as the canine was able to assist him with various chores, including reaching for things that he can't reach.

Annabelle, a yellow Labrador, is his second CPL dog.

She is an awesome dog,” Stracka said. “You can get this dog to do anything. You can just see the character in her. She's a funny, little character.”

Stracka can communicate with Annabelle through verbal commands or hand signals. When he holds his fist to his chest, for example, that means she should sit. At other times, all he needs to do is give Anabelle a look and she will instinctively know how to respond.

A lot of times, she just knows what I want,” he explained. “I've trained her to meet my needs.”

Annabelle is Stracka's constant companion. When he finishes with a shower, he might tell Annabelle to go let someone else in the house know that he needs some assistance. At other times, he might write someone a note, put it in a bottle, and tell the canine who to take the note to.

Stracka and Annabelle do demonstrations in schools and community events. He likes the idea of informing others about the importance of what the CPL dogs can do.

Canine Partners for Life is always a partner to their clients and to the dogs. If something unexpected happens, trainers will be sent across the country to provide assistance to someone who needs it. For example, one dog became scared after a wheelchair lift almost fell on it while it was helping its partner. Trainers went out to help the dog overcome its fear.

We always stay a part of their lives,” Sullivan said.

The total cost to raise, train and support a dog is estimated to be more than $30,000. The organization utilizes a sliding scale based on income to determine the suggested donation for each recipient, usually ranging from $1,000 to $3,000. No one is denied a dog based on the ability to pay the suggested donation, however.

Sullivan credits the people and organizations who provide support for Canine Partners for Life with helping the organization meet the growing demand for service and alert dogs.

According to Sullivan, “Canine Partners for Life has done nothing but grow, learn, and improve. This evolution has been made possible by the vibrant community of people and animals that have been drawn to our mission and who have resolved to make a difference: a dramatic, impactful, and inspiring difference.”

In 1997, the organization expanded to a 45-acre property in Cochranville that includes a state-of-the-art kennel, a training center, and an office building for a staff of 28. Sullivan considers the most wonderful part of CPL to be the people who are drawn to help and become a part of the mission.

Then, of course, there are the dogs, who are nothing less than heroic in their dedication and service to their partners.

Stracka goes everywhere with Annabelle by his side.

She's really a good companion,” he said. “The emotional part of this is that I never go anywhere alone.”

Vible is now a junior at the University of Delaware and is experiencing fewer seizures. She loves traveling around the campus with Rosebud.

She's just great,” Vible said. “We're always together and I love having her around. My friends all think she's the best. She's smart and very sweet.”

At this point, Sullivan is never surprised when alert dogs prove themselves capable of helping with some new ailment. The service dog industry has moved far beyond simply training dogs to help people with restricted mobility. Today, dogs are even being scent-trained to provide alerts for diabetes sufferers. New discoveries so often start with a telephone call for help, and there’s no telling what other ways dogs might be able to provide assistance for in the future. More than 50 million Americans over the age of five have some form of chronic physical disability, and that number is growing as the population ages.

The dogs amaze us every day, but I think we’ve just started finding out what they are capable of,” Sullivan said.

To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email [email protected].

SLUG: Canine Partners for Life


Two events to celebrate the 25th anniversary

Canine Partners for Life will host two events to honor its silver anniversary. On Saturday, April 11, the 25th Anniversary Gala takes place at Winterthur Museum and Country Estate, 5105 Kennett Pike, Winterthur, Del. This black tie affair will be an evening of fabulous food and dancing the night away to the sounds of the Jim Levendis Orchestra. Tickets are $250 per person.

Pawty at the Preserve will be held on Saturday, May 30 from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Lenfest Center at the ChesLen Preserve, 1199 Cannery Road, in Coatesville. This event will include wag-worthy bites from John Serock Catering, local libations of wine and Sly Fox Brewing Company and Victory Brewing Company brews, lawn games, music by Nicole Zell, a puppy kissing booth and paws galore – all in one of the area’s largest nature preserves. Individual tickets are $50 and tickets for children 12 and under are $15.

All event proceeds benefit Canine Partners for Life’s mission to raise and train service dogs, home companion dogs, and residential companion dogs to assist individuals who have a wide range of physical and cognitive disabilities. To learn more about programs and events, visit, call 610-869-4902 or email [email protected].