Several employees assist residents at Daymark Living on a daily basis. One of them has four legs, an Instagram page and a tail that’s always wagging.
Yoshi is a three-year-old Labrador/Golden Retriever mix that works as a facility dog for Daymark Living. She tends to the residents’ social needs daily, whether they pet her, walk with her, or even accept slobbery kisses from her.
“Yoshi is just super laid-back and loving,” director of community life Molly Denny said. “Our residents need that. She’s perfect here.”
Yoshi was trained through the Irving-based Canine Companions for Independence nonprofit organization before she joined the Daymark family last year. Now the Ellis County District Attorney’s Office and the Children's Advocacy Center are seeking to make similar tail-wagging additions to their facilities through the same program.
Founded in 1975, Canine Companions for Independence assists children and adults with disabilities by providing highly-trained assistance dogs for personal and physical support. Canine Companions marketing coordinator Courtney Craig said the program’s dogs are bred at their headquarters in Santa Rosa, California before they are transferred to volunteer puppy raisers at eight weeks old.
When the dogs reach 18-20 months old, they enter professional training at one of their six locations.
“They live on our campus and work with our professional trainers on-staff to learn the more advanced commands, such as retrieving dropped items, opening and closing doors, turning on and off light switches and more,” Craig stated.
Denny first saw the Canine Companions in action during an Autism Speaks walk in 2015. When she saw how the canines interacted other impaired individuals during the walk, she felt that a companion would benefit their residency and decided to apply as a handler for the program.
“It takes a long time,” Denny recalled. “They’re very picky about who gets dogs.”
Denny stated that she was asked several questions during the pre-screening, including what her home was like, whether they had a fenced yard if she was married and even if she had children. Eventually, however, her application was approved and she got to attend the two-week training course with Canine Companions.
“They teach you the commands, how to hold the leash, and all these basic things about dogs in general,” Denny recalled. “You learn about what they’ve been through and you get to watch what they do with the trainers.”
On the second or third day of training, the handlers got to meet the dogs and intermingle with them. Denny said her connection to Yoshi was nearly instantaneous.
“When we all sat at the floor and they let the dogs come and walk around the circle, she got in my lap and sat down,” Denny recalled. “I think they were looking for some of that natural instinct they have with certain people.”
After Denny and Yoshi completed the remainder of their training, Denny was officially designated as Yoshi’s handler. Yoshi was on her way to her new home.
YOSHI’S NEW HOME
Denny stated that whenever they left to take Yoshi to her new home, she said Yoshi was a little apprehensive at first. She recalled that Yoshi had spent several months acclimating to her previous environment, only to sudden transition and adapt into a newer one.
“She was really nervous,” Denny expressed. “When I first put her into my car, she thought she was getting kidnapped. They’ve been in this place training for a long time and were very close with their trainers. They had to kind of break that bond and re-form a new bond with their handlers.”
“It’s like a foster kid,” Denny added. “They’ve been in this one group, and now they’re going to their adopted home. It can be a hard transition.”
Yoshi was the first facility dog in Texas placed at a special needs adult community, according to Craig. Yoshi regularly plays and socializes with the area’s residents as they smile and greet her with a pat on her back or a kiss on her forehead.
Then there’s maintaining Yoshi’s cleanliness. Denny explained that they will use Yoshi as an example to show residents how to take care of their own personal hygiene.
“We talk about what we have to do to look presentable,” she explained. “What do we have to do? We have to wash our hair, we have to brush our teeth, we have to clean out our ears, we have to keep our nails cut. We let them do those things to her, and then we say we have to do those things to ourselves.”
Denny stated that Yoshi day-job is to take care of the residents that live there, but in the evenings she’s just your typical house pet.
“She’s like an employee,” Denny stated. “She goes to work, and when she comes home, takes off her vest, she’s a dog.”
EXPANSION INTO THE COUNTY
In addition to providing assistance services for individuals with disabilities, Craig stated that Canine Companion dogs could also be used to work in other capacities, such as a District Attorney’s office or a Child Advocacy Center.
Ellis County and District Attorney Patrick Wilson brought the action to let therapy and facility dogs into county buildings before the county commissioners’ court during their regular meeting Tuesday. The commissioners’ unanimously approved the motion, allowing Wilson and the Children's Advocacy Center to apply for the Canine Companion program.
“A facility dog’s high level of training prepares them to lay still for long periods of time and be well-mannered in professional environments,” Craig expressed. “A well-mannered and highly trained facility dog encourages feelings of calm and security for clients in a visitation setting, such as a courtroom. The dog’s commands can also be incorporated into these settings, such as the ‘visit’ command where the dog places its head on an individual’s lap.”
Wilson first brought the action to the commissioners’ court several years ago when he first tried to bring a facility dog into his office. Although the court approved his request, the project ran into unexpected complications before it was eventually dropped altogether. Yoshi’s more recent success story re-invigorated his interest in pursuing the program again and trying to implement a facility dog into his office.
“I was just immediately taken with the idea,” Wilson stated. “We deal with traumatized people in a variety of contexts. Those dogs can be used in many of those conversations.”
The cases where facility dogs could be most useful was in cases involving children, whom Wilson said are unfortunately subjected to the stresses of courtroom trauma.
“I know the difficulty of subjecting kids to this process,” Wilson iterated. “It is not a fun process in any way, shape, or form. It’s a very scary process. Anything that we can do to make that process easier for children is great.”
Wilson stated he was further encouraged for his efforts when he invited Denny and Yoshi to the courthouse, the latter of whom received a very warm welcome from residents in attendance.
“When I see the spirits of adults who are simply working get lifted just by seeing that dog, I can only imagine how the spirits of children who have been traumatized will be lifted,” Wilson expressed. “The benefit to me is obvious.”
Representatives from both Wilson’s office and the Advocacy Center have already been selected and submitted into their application for the Canine Companions program. In the meantime, Yoshi will continue to set the example by putting a smile on the faces of Ellis County’s residents.
“We’ve benefitted so much from having her here,” Denny expressed. “Anytime they can have an animal that’s interacting with individuals that might be under a stressful situation, I just can’t imagine the benefits to it. It’s nice to be able to share. There are no bad sides to it.”
To learn more about the Canine Companions for Independence program, go online at www.cci.org. Yoshi’s Instagram profile can be viewed at @_yoshigram_.