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Friday, June 14, 2024

Opening Doors to Independence—Canine Companions

Fran McBride with Eugene, Caitlin Denzer-Weiler with Bellino, Ann McBride with Percy learning socialization skills. Photo by L. Ward, 05/2024.

They turn on lights, pick up items, assist with transactions, push buttons for elevators, ease anxiety, and interrupt nightmares.

They are the Canine Companions. 

Founded in Santa Rosa, California, in 1975, the nationwide nonprofit organization is the largest trainer of service dogs, enriching the lives and caring for people with disabilities—all completely free of charge to the person. 

Via an interactive application process, an adult, child, professional or veteran with physical or developmental disabilities applies for the service dog and only must agree upon the nonnegotiable two-week training class with the canine. Then graduation!

At 8 weeks old, the dog is placed with a volunteer trainer where he or she will learn to socialize, achieve good manners and learn basic commands.  At age 18 months, the dog will begin training with one of the organization’s professional trainers for six months and learn 40 specialized commands; for instance, picking up an object as small as a dime with the grace of an angel.  

But who are these amazing volunteers who tirelessly train the puppies out of the goodness of their hearts, while still juggling careers and personal lives, subject to the woes of attachment only to send the companion back out into the world? 

Canine Companions volunteer trainers and trainees: Robert Benson, Ann Benson, Dante, Caitlin Denzer-Weiler, Bellino, Jane Nagy, Eugene, Fran McBride, Percy, Ann McBride, Lisa Plocinski and Pono. Photo by L. Ward, 5/2024.

One such person is Jane Nagy, Warren County resident of Phillipsburg, who has trained 27 dogs to date and is working on her 28th trainee. 


Top left and right: Jane Nagy with service puppies, Dante on the right. Bottom left: Ann Benson with Dante, the latest 4-month-old trainee. Bottom right: Eugene showing off the CCI logo. Photos by L. Ward, 5/2024.

Nagy recently was awarded the esteemed 2023 Jack Warnock Volunteer Award.  

Not only did Nagy train her heart out, but she also recruited many other volunteers, founded two volunteer chapters and is a therapy dog evaluator and handler.  

When asked which dogs stand out in her mind, Nagy began by thinking aloud.

“Those that you think that are going to make but don’t and those that you think aren’t going to make it but do. It is a roller coaster ride really. One of my dogs went to a person who worked at the FBI,” she said. “He was the first service dog. So that was pretty exciting. He would go to work every day with that person, and they had a really neat thing on their website for all the kids, so I was following his journey. This is most impactful, the first graduate, who was a woman teacher who went from being a very able-bodied person to a very disabled-bodied person and trying to grasp how she made that change. Her life changed so devastatingly, yet she continued to work and go back to work. She decided life was worth living. That was huge for me.”

John Bentzinger, Canine Companions public relations and marketing coordinator said, “What’s special is we breed our own dogs. Labradors have great dispositions and are eager, food-driven, while the golden retrievers are strong and smart. And we do not advertise. We are entirely funded by donations and some large contributors like Eukanuba.”

Caitlin Denzer-Weiler, a volunteer trainer from Great Meadows, is training her first dog, 9-month-old Bellino. 

“We are aware of Canine Companions because of the hospital where I work, Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in Chester. So, we got a facility dog which we applied for years ago, and Frita just retired after eight and a half years. I felt that I still needed to be involved with the organization. It doesn’t make sense for me to have a working dog because I am in administration now so this the best route.” 

Canine Companions volunteer trainer Caitlin Denzer-Weiler with 9-month-old Bellino practicing poise amongst movement by other trainees. Photo by L. Ward, 5/2024.

Denzer-Weiler has been volunteer training Bellino since the end of September after Frita, now 11, retired in July. 

“Bellino’s doing great, a lot of work but a lot of fun,” Denzer-Weiler said. “It helps that I have an understanding of what the dogs do and the commands, because I went through training. Getting Frita, I spent two weeks at the facility in Long Island, two-day ‘speed-dating’ and then a preliminary match. The training is really for the humans, since the dogs are already trained.”

“In the therapy gyms,” she recalled when asked about Frita meeting with patients. “Dogs provide motivation for patients, psychological support but also physical. Frita is trained in service command, reaching and balance.  Brushing the dog, using the patient’s weak side is motivational. Kessler wrote a research article on a person who could only walk 10 feet and with Frita she walked 300 feet! Only one step on a stair, but with the motivation of Frita, an entire flight of stairs!”  

Ann and Bob Benson, volunteer trainers from Long Island, New York, are co-training Dante with Nagy, which helps to further socialize a canine and helps the volunteers if they need schedule flexibility. 

“With experienced trainers who recognize the key to success is consistency, it helps further socialize a dog who is distracted easily by other animals,” Nagy said.

Canine Companions volunteer trainer Ann Benson desensitizing Dante from socialization excitement. Photo by L. Ward, 5/2024.

“There is something about the first puppy of yours that graduates—not that the others aren’t superb—but the emotional accomplishment is great and there is a more special attachment with first graduate,” Ann Benson said. “Even though it’s the dog, not you with the accomplishment.”  

Four-month-old Dante is as cool as a cucumber and smart as a whip, until he sees another dog. 

“The other day Dante rounded the corner, saw himself in a mirror and went berserk with excitement,” Ann Benson said.

Fran and Jan McBride are volunteer trainers from Easton, Pennsylvania for 16-month-old Eugene and 11-month-old Percy.  

Canine Companions volunteer trainer Fran McBride with Eugene. Photo by L. Ward, 5/2024.

“The logo of the dog trails into a loop, which is supposed to both symbolize the soft-lead leash and the cursive letter ‘I’ for independence,” Fran McBride explained. “We have to remind folks that the soft-lead leash is NOT a muzzle. It is not there to keep the dog from biting, but to gently direct him when training. 

For more information or to make a donation, visit

Laura Ward with long pink earrings on
Laura Ward, Contributing Writer

Laura Ward is a gallerist at Infloressense in Belvidere, NJ, whose motto is "poetic synthesis of all the cultural arts." Born in West Orange, NJ, Ward had a unique childhood growing up in a three-story, three-generation, 1895 Victorian where she learned gardening with her great-grandfather, theater with her grandmother, and typing with her mom. Ward spent the last two decades in the architectural design industry, followed by her present pursuit into the entrepreneurial world of art and event planning. Ward lives in the esoteric Delaware Village Historic District and volunteers at Ramsaysburg Historic Homestead. Ward spent 11 years in Florida where she graduated with an English B.A. from FAU and later The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale with an art history minor.