Canine Companions volunteers train puppies for people with disabilities

“Volunteer puppy raisers like Barbara are the backbone of our organization,” said Debra Dougherty.

If you are an animal lover, this volunteer gig sounds like a dream: Welcome a fluffy 10-week old puppy into your home, then take them everywhere so they can learn vital socialization skills.

But be warned — being a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence is serious business.

Barbara Bocklage of South Ozone Park knows that the love and care she is giving a puppy named Kimber III is just the first part of a long journey.

After 18 months, Kimber will head back to CCI for more intensive training at the Medford, Long Island, facility. Kimber will also face testing to determine if she can become a companion dog for a disabled child or adult.

Only about 40 percent of dogs pass those tests, according to Canine Companions for Independence.

“I know so many people would love to be able to have someone like her,” said Bocklage, a retired city Department of Education paraprofessional who worked with special needs children.

While she knows returning Kimber some day will be difficult, Bocklage said it will be rewarding to know her volunteer efforts can directly help a person in need.

“I can give money to a charity, but you can’t see where it’s going,” she said. “I get to hand over her leash to the family who she will train with and live with.”

Canine Companions provides dogs for people with a range of disabilities. The canines help with such tasks as picking up various items and keeping balance. Some dogs are even trained to sweep a room so it is clear for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The clients do not pay for the dogs, and the group relies on volunteers to care for the pups during the critical early months.

“Volunteer puppy raisers like Barbara are the backbone of our organization,” said Debra Dougherty, executive director for Canine Companions’ Northeast region. “Puppy Kimber is going to make an amazing difference for a child, adult or veteran with disabilities.”

Meanwhile, Kimber accompanies Bocklage to doctor’s appointments and other errands while learning commands. Bocklage sends in regular reports to update CCI on Kimber’s health and growth.

And the affectionate pup is showered with attention by Bocklage and her extended family.

“Her personality, I can only give you one word: love. She just oozes with it,” Bocklage said. “But when she gets frisky, look out. She’s a ball of fire.

But the Labrador/golden retriever mix seems to already know when it’s time to work and time to play.

“It’s like having another grandchild,” Bocklage said. “There is something very special about this puppy.”

Lisa L. Colangelo