by Sue Ann Rybak
— Part Two
For the last two and half years, Michael Dzuba and his wife Linda, of Mt. Airy, have been helping to transform people’s lives by participating in Canine Partners for Life’s puppy raising program.
Canine Partners for Life is an organization dedicated to training service dogs, home companion dogs and residential companion dogs to assist individuals who have a wide range of physical and cognitive disabilities including ALS, arthritis, cardiac related problems, cerebral palsy, chronic back and neck pain, chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome, diabetes, epilepsy, autism and many more.
At any given time, Canine Partners for Life has 40-50 puppies being raised and trained by volunteers for its service dog program. Volunteers agree to raise a seven-week-old puppy in their home for 12-18 months. Michael described it as a “life changing experience.”
“These dogs are mascots at Fit Life and Valley Green Bank,” Michael said. “They go everywhere with us. We thought giving up the dog was going to be the hardest part of the whole thing, but some training issues are even harder.”
“We went into it knowing we were giving up the dog,” Linda said, adding that Canine Partners provides support and free training for volunteers every step of the program. “You never feel abandoned.”
“Our first dog Balick would go nuts as soon as we pulled into the parking lot because our teller would give him a treat,” Michael added. “So we asked the trainer what we should do and he said to take her outside and start over again. Sometimes, it would take 15 minutes just to get into the bank.”
Linda said at the end of the dogs’ training, CPL holds a graduation ceremony, and the service dogs are given to the recipients. “We have been to several graduations, and everybody in the audience is always crying, not because their dog is leaving them but because they are so proud of their dog. It’s so moving to see people’s lives transformed by these dogs.”
The Dzubas’ first dog Balick, a yellow Labrador, was partnered with Andrea, whose neurological disorder made it difficult to be as active and independent as she once was. “When Balick graduated, we saw this lady’s life become transformed,” Michael said. “She needed help with balance control and retrieval. At the time, she was having difficulty walking with a walker. With the assistance of Balick, she was moving confidently. Balick recently went on a Caribbean cruise with her. Something she never imagined doing before. Balick is helping her to live a fuller, more independent life.”
Mariana Sorenson, 58, a former assistant district attorney and Chestnut Hill resident, also is fostering a service dog. “I love dogs, but when our last one died, we didn’t want to make a commitment to have a dog for 14 years because we wanted to travel,” Sorenson said. “This worked out perfectly because it’s only a one-year commitment, and the dog can go everywhere with us. Plus, they will take the dog whenever you go away on vacation.”
Sorenson suggested people try fostering temporarily — for a weekend or week, while another volunteer is on vacation. “It’s such a positive experience There is no downside that I can see.”
Ann Devine, who worked as a hospital chaplain for 25 years at Moss Rehab in Elkins Park before retiring, said while she considers herself a quiet person, it doesn’t bother her when people stop her on the street and ask her questions. Devine said she takes Topper, a black Labrador, to her church’s choir rehearsals and her caring crafters club. “Service dogs change whole communities,” Devine said. “It connects people in a way that normally they wouldn’t.”
Andrea Levine, of Wilmington, Delaware, received a friend for life when she was partnered with Michael and Linda Dzubas’ dog, Balick. Levine, who was diagnosed with a very rare neurodegenerative disorder that makes it difficult for her to perform everyday tasks, said thanks to the Dzubas and Balick, her service dog, she is living a happier, fuller and more independent life. “Before Balick, I never imagined walking without any medical equipment like a cane or a walker,” Levine said. “Everywhere I go, he goes.”
Darlene Sullivan, executive director of CPL, said their unique dog harness, which was designed by a dog chiropractor, allows Levine to use Balick’s harness to maintain her balance. “It was designed specifically to mimic a horse’s saddle which arcs over the horse’s back,” Sullivan said. “Years ago, people realized that since they wanted their horses to stay healthy (and be comfortable with a rider) they needed to create a saddle which kept any weight from directly resting on the horse’s spine, protecting it from injury.”
Levine said Balick has transformed her life by allowing her to travel independently. Levine and Balick are constantly on the move. They recently went on a cruise to the Panama Canal. She encourages anyone who is thinking about getting a service dog to call CPL.
The cost of raising and training a service dog can be more than $29,000 per dog. But CPL uses a sliding scale based on income to determine the suggested donation for each recipient, ranging from $1,000 to $3,000. No one is ever denied a service dog because of their inability to pay. “Most people who are disabled cannot afford to pay thousands of dollars for a service dog,” said Levine , who waited almost 18 months to receive Balick. “CPL only asks for a donation based on what you can afford … Balick is a full-time, trained, always-there companion. When you develop a disease like mine, you become isolated from your friends. The dog becomes someone who loves you and keeps you company.”
For more information about Canine Partners for Life, visit www.k94life.org.
To Be Continued . . .