Canine Companions: Zionsville family raises service dogs to increase independence for people with disabilities

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By Mark Ambrogi

Zionsville residents Linda and Bill Cleveland have put their puppy love to good use. Kevin, a yellow Labrador retriever, is the 19th dog the couple has trained for Canine Companions for Independence.

The nonprofit organization, founded in 1975, provides highly-trained assistance dogs for persons with disabilities. The families get the dogs, usually Labrador or golden retrievers or a mix of both breeds, as puppies. After raising them for 15 months, they turn them over for six months of advanced training at a center near Columbus, Ohio. While there, the dogs learn to turn on and off light switches, pick up dropped objects, pull a wheelchair and carry items. They are then matched with a person with a disability other than blindness. Canine Companions does not charge for their service dogs.

“We’ve been doing this for 21 years,” said Linda, whose family moved to Zionsville 6 1/2 years ago. “Part of the reason we went with Canine Companions is it’s a national group, and my husband used to work for International Paper. We wanted to go with a national organization so if we had to move, we could keep doing it.”

Linda said it was hard not to get attached the first time they trained a dog.

“It about did me in when I had to turn the dog in,” Linda said. “For several weeks afterwards, someone would mention his name, and I would tear up. But we were fortunate our first dog graduated, and that kind of hooked me, because if your dog graduates you actually get to meet the person they go to. We established a relationship, and in fact, I’m still in touch with that family. We’ve made a lot of friends all over the country by doing this. Most of them we’ve stayed in touch with even after the dog has passed.”

Linda said the second dog went to a quadriplegic, who had the dog for 10 years.

“The cool thing is he got the dog when he went to college, so instead of being the guy in the wheelchair, he was the guy with the cool dog,” said Bill, who is finishing his Ph.D in philanthropic studies through Indiana University.

Linda, who works at Old National Bank in Zionsville, said when the dogs they are training turn six months old, she starts taking them to work with her so they learn how to behave in a work environment.

“Most of the time the dog lies under the desk, and (customers) don’t even know I have a dog with me at work,” Linda said.

The Clevelands have two daughters, Alex, a 2014 Zionsville Community High School graduate, and Hannah, a ZCHS senior. They also have a pet dog, a seven-pound chihuahua/papillon mix, and three cats.

“You don’t have to have other pets, but I think it helps,” Linda said.

Bill said each dog has to be trained a little differently because each personality is unique.

“We’ve never been picky about which breed, which gender or what color,” Bill said.

Bill has followed one rule: if one of their dogs fails to graduate from advanced training, he will not take the dog back as a pet.

“We had one dog become an explosive sniffing dog,” Bill said. “She was really high energy so I think that was good placement for her. I’m sure I got more attached to the first couple of dogs. But now it’s just a parade of puppies.”

This dog a true Volunteer

Alex, a former ZCHS swimming star, is now a sophomore swimmer for the University of Tennessee Volunteers.

For the recently completed first semester of the school year, she was joined by Thomas, a yellow lab the family had been training.

“He doesn’t go to practice and class with her every day, but two or three times a week,” Linda said.  “At the pool, he does great. She just tethers him to a couch in their team room and he lays there.”

With Alex traveling more for swimming, Thomas will now stay in Zionsville for several weeks before heading to advanced training.

“Having Thomas on campus has been so much fun. I have been able to teach my coaches and teammates about raising service dogs,” Alex said.

Alex says she will no doubt miss him.

“She said Thomas is better than a boyfriend; he’ll actually leave her alone if she asks him to,” Bill said.


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