Canine crash course: Berryville graduate trains, socializes assistance dog
Assistance dogs aren’t just born. They’re raised.
Berryville native Micaela Motzko said that is one of many lessons she has learned after becoming a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a nonprofit organization that provides assistance dogs free of charge to those who need them.
Motzko said she got her assistance dog-in-training, Gibson, when he was 8 weeks old and has been training and socializing him since then. There are 30 CCI commands that all the puppies across the country learn before they go back for formal training, she said.
“Since the assistance dogs are free, they have volunteers who do the bulk of the puppy raising,” she said. “I’m responsible for training and socialization. CCI sent me this vest that says ‘Volunteer Puppy Raising Program,’ so I’m responsible for taking him out into public places and getting him acclimated to being in those environments and being comfortable in those locations.”
Motzko said she got involved in CCI’s puppy raising program as her thesis project for her senior year at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.
“I was in the honors college at UCA, and part of being an honors student is completing a thesis project,” she said. “Instead of just writing a giant paper, I wanted to do something more like a service project that would benefit someone else.”
She said she majored in pre-physical therapy and started researching assistance dogs because she knew of many assistance dogs that helped physical therapists at their practices.
“I didn’t know being a volunteer puppy raiser was a thing until I started researching it,” Motzko said. “I found CCI and applied to be one, and I got it approved through the honors college that I could do this as my senior thesis.”
She said she did encounter a couple of kickbacks at UCA when it came to Gibson living in the dorm with her and walking at graduation with her.
“I was the first one at UCA to do this and definitely the first one to do it as a thesis project,” she said. “It’s really cool knowing I was the first one. There were a lot of people on campus who would come up and ask me ‘How did you get to do this?’ because I would take him to my classes.”
The questions kept coming after she returned to Berryville, Motzko said, because CCI encourages its puppy trainers to take the dogs as many places as possible.
“You never know where the person who receives him one day might need to go,” she said. “They could need to go to a movie theater or a restaurant or a farmers’ market.”
Motzko continued, “I’ve had a lot of questions around here. In Conway, it was a little easier to go in public because it was a bigger city. I don’t know personally if there are that many people in this county who have service dogs, and I don’t think there are any people in this area who are doing the volunteer puppy raising.”
She said many people are unaware of the labor, time, dedication and patience it takes to raise an assistance dog.
“These dogs don’t just suddenly become well-behaved service dogs out of magic,” Motzko said. “When I first took Gibson out in public, we went to a Dollar Tree, and he was licking everything in the aisles and rolling around on the floor. It was just a mess, but the more I did it and the longer we went out the better he became.”
The dogs stay with the volunteer puppy raisers for about 18 to 20 months, she said, and then attend a little graduation ceremony, which will be at the beginning of August this year. They then go through the process of formal training with the trainers at CCI with several other dogs, she said.
“They’ll build on the commands Gibson has already learned with me,” Motzko said, “and they’ll teach more specialized commands like opening doors, turning on light switches and things like that.”
CCI trains four types of assistance dogs: service dogs for adults with disabilities, skilled companion animals for children, hearing dogs and facility dogs. Since skilled companion animals are matched with children, the parents serve as the dogs’ handlers, Motzko said. She said facility dogs often serve in children’s advocacy programs or courthouses, sitting with children and comforting them as they retell their stories of abuse.
After the assistance dogs have been in formal training for six months, she said CCI will try to match them with people who need them. Many of the people who apply to receive assistance dogs are on a waiting list for almost two years, she said, because there are not enough dogs.
“When they bring in the people who are ready to receive these dogs, they have them sit in a room, and they bring in all the dogs and let them just interact,” Motzko said. “They let the dogs and the people choose each other instead of just assigning it, which is really sweet.”
Sometimes CCI has assistance dogs that miss their trainers so much that they get depressed and want to leave, she said.
“They won’t force them to stay in the program if that’s the case,” she said. “They would offer Gibson back to me if he failed the program for some reason, so I’d be able to adopt him, which I absolutely would because I love him so much.”
If Gibson makes it all the way through the program, Motzko said she will be invited back for the leash handing off ceremony, where she passes his leash to his new owner.
“It would be so precious to me. I want him to succeed because there has been so much work put into this,” she said, “but I wouldn’t be sad if he didn’t make it through because I’d be able to adopt him back.”
Motzko said her favorite part of the volunteer puppy training program has been getting to know Gibson and watching him grow and learn.
“CCI has their own breeding program, and they breed dogs that have really good personalities,” she said. “Gibson has been wonderful. He’s the first dog I’ve ever raised completely on my own, so I’m definitely going to be spoiled when I get a dog in the future because his temperament has been so great. He’s the friendliest dog.”
Motzko said she plans to apply for medical school in the fall and wants to serve as a volunteer puppy raiser again in the future.
“I’ve learned a lot through this process. I wasn’t aware before of all the work that went in preparing a service dog to meet the needs of someone with a disability,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot about public perception and public etiquette, and I realized why that’s so important, especially in the puppy raising phase.”
Motzko said she hopes people will learn not to automatically try to pet assistance dogs, distinguished by their work vests, before asking their owners or trainers. She said that can be detrimental to assistance dogs’ training.
Anyone interested in learning more about the puppy raising program or seeing if they are eligible for an assistance dog can visit CCI.org.
“If there is anyone in this area who has the time and the resources to be a puppy raiser, I would recommend it,” Motzko said. “I want to do it again in the future for sure.”