by Kate Karstens
“She’s a hearing dog. They’re the smartest of all the service dogs,” Falls Church resident Erin Scranton whispered, as to not hurt the feelings of the other three dogs who live with her.
Scranton was talking about Luna, a recent graduate of Canine Companions for Independence who now assists a firefighter in New York with a hearing disability. Hearing assistance dogs never take a break from their job, constantly keeping their ear to the ground for a knock, phone ring, or even a fire alarm.
“Everything that I thought would be a red flag ended up making her the top tier,” said Scranton. “She was always hyper-aware and I would just try to tell her to calm down but she would always be on watch.”
This particular quality is what made Luna perfect for a hearing dog.
Raising this hyper-aware animal for a year and a half before her training in January was the livelihood of Erin Scranton and her daughter Maggie, who have lived in Falls Church for the past couple years after moving from Davis, Calif. When the family moved to Northern Virginia, Luna simply curled up by Erin’s feet for the five hour plane ride.
“It was great because when her new owner asked if he could take her on a plane, it wasn’t going to be a new experience for Luna because she had already done it,” said Scranton.
Involving the dog in everyday life is a key to the program, as the main job of the puppy raisers is to socialize the dog. The result of the socialization is for the dogs to be exposed to every situation possible, so the disabled owners can be fully independent. For Erin, that meant trips to the grocery store and post office were accompanied by Luna. Even her daughter, a recent graduate of McLean High School would take Luna to school once a week.
“It’s at the point where if I go somewhere without Kastner, employees at the grocery store are disappointed and ask where he is,” said Erin.
Kastner is a 18-month-old golden retriever that replaced Luna’s presence at the house and is close to being sent off to training in Long Island, NY, the Northeast headquarters of CCI.
“I’ve become a serial puppy raiser,” said Scranton, a term used to describe volunteers who are comforted by the send-off of their socialized dog by a brand new 8-week-old puppy.
Erin Scranton is currently housing her family dog, Tex, a socialized dog ready for training, Kastner, and a new golden lab puppy named Smith II for Erin to turn her attentions to when Kastner is sent off.
Puppy raisers will attend a ceremony where the leash will be handed over to the disabled person requiring the dog. Luna is still a part of Erin’s life, as her owner, Stephen Yaciuk, keeps in touch with the Scrantons, sending pictures and updates.
“The ceremony where the leashes are exchanged is just amazing,” said Scranton. “There is just so much love in the room and when I handed Luna’s leash over, her new owner was just sobbing. Even though it’s hard for me to give her up, the truth is she was never really mine. From the beginning, she was ready to serve and assist those in need.”
As Luna was Erin’s first dog, her success was outstanding considering the 67 percent of puppies who don’t make it through the rigorous training to become a service dog.
“Even the slightest issue will disqualify a dog. A health problem, a behavioral twitch, anything,” she said. “However, I’ve known dogs who don’t make it as personal service dogs but end up working in Social Services or as a police dog. These are highly trained animals and all that money and time shouldn’t go to waste.”
It takes $60,000 to raise a single service dog. Canine Companions is a nonprofit who gives all of their dogs to those in need for free. The organization relies on donations and the generosity of their puppy raisers who will raise the dog with money from their own pocket. Special events such as DogFest Walk ‘n Roll, a walk-run on Sept. 12 in Arlington to raise $60,000, gives those who support the cause a chance to get involved.
Her newest family addition, Smith II, is the result of a family’s second generous $10,000 donation to Canine Companions for Independence. This donation resulted in the family naming the puppy and monthly pictures and updates to the family from Erin. The Northeast region of Canine Companions for Independence is actively seeking puppy raisers, as a majority of puppies are born in the summer.
Smith II, a 4-month-old golden Labrador is fitting quite nicely into the Scranton household. He often shares Kastner’s bed and plays with the other two dogs, even the ten-year-old family dog Tex.
“Right now, he’s getting used to his cape and soft lead,” said Scranton. “He’ll be just about ready for me to socialize him once Kastner goes to training.” Soon, Smith’s cape will become a vest and he will be Scranton’s third puppy to socialize.