Canine Companions: Helping One Pittsburgh Pup at a Time


OWhen Coral arrived at Jill Sabo’s in Bridgeville, she wasn’t quite ready to be a service dog — in fact, she wasn’t even potty trained. Fortunately, Sabo was ready; for seven years, she has always had a new puppy at home.

Sabo is a Chapter Leader with the volunteer Western Pennsylvania Chapter of Canine Companions, a national organization that trains and places service dogs with disabled adults, children and veterans for free. Sabo’s role is to start the dogs on their journey to service, teaching them around 30 basic commands – and handling the normal puppy stuff.

“You only raise one puppy at a time,” she says. “You get them when they’re not clean. Once they’ve settled in, you start over. It’s like constantly having a baby in diapers.

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After Sabo and his family trained Coral, a Labrador/Golden Retriever mix bred for serviceability, the pooch attended a graduation ceremony and moved on to specialized training. Dogs can be trained to help with over 60 disabilities or specialize in helping veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder; others can become hearing dogs. Coral was eventually placed with a boy with a neuromuscular disease – thankfully, before the coronavirus pandemic began.

The boy’s mother “said how amazing it was to have Coral during the pandemic,” Sabo says, “because of the bond they have.

“When you see a dog you raised going with their new person, and they’re so happy, it’s something you have to see to believe.”

Without assistance, the cost of a service animal can be prohibitive; Canine Companions estimates that training costs $50,000 per dog, from puppy to placement. For those who would benefit from a specially trained four-legged friend, Canine Companions taps into a nationwide network of volunteers to ensure a trained dog is on the way.

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Since its creation in 1975, more than 7,000 “graduate teams” have been placed with someone in need.

Even after a puppy has received initial training from a volunteer like Sabo, there is a long way to go.

Volunteer puppy raisers care for a puppy from the time it is 8 weeks old until it reaches 18 months; he then moves on to specialized training. At this point the dogs are sorted by ability; only 52% of puppies graduate at this level and are placed, Sabo says, while others are offered to their first caretakers for permanent adoption; some become therapy dogs instead.

Coral, of course, passed the program. Just like Penguin, the next dog Sabo took care of; Penguin, however, has become something of a TV star along the way.

Weekly updates on Penguin’s training and progress have appeared on KDKA’s “Pittsburgh Today Live,” the result of a suggestion from the former news director – and former Canine Companions board member – Kathy Hostetter. Each week, Sabo updated viewers on what Penguin had learned over the previous week; the home audience saw Penguin grow from an exuberant pup to a trained service dog.

Former PTL producer Jill Neely said working with Canine Companions was a no-brainer, especially after seeing a webcam view of the association’s nursery. “You could see a whole bunch of puppies,” she said. “It was just adorable – you couldn’t go wrong.”

More importantly, Neely says, it was an opportunity to raise awareness of the work Canine Companions were doing. “To follow their training and what a noble mission it is, it was just a fascinating story and a really noble cause.

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“What an incredible collective effort to bring support to people in need.”

Penguin has since been placed with a 37-year-old man who has cerebral palsy. Penguin turns on switches for him, opens doors, and even sleeps in his bed to make sure he doesn’t roll over. The pair are quite active, visiting national parks together, so Sabo says Penguin is “having a lot of fun as well as helping out.” Of course, everything is fun for Penguin. “Dogs love to work.”

Other canine companion dogs can interrupt nightmares for people with PTSD, serve as hearing dogs for deaf people, or even pull manual wheelchairs. The range of services they can provide, Sabo says, is remarkable – and Canine Companions provides lifetime tracking to keep monitoring their dogs.

Of course, long before they become good dogs, they have to learn how to be good puppies – and Sabo is more than happy to continue training them. She has another lab mix, Donny, in the house; he just celebrated his first birthday. “He learns his commands, learns to be calm around people and other dogs — and loves his segments on PTL,” Sabo says, especially when his favorite co-host Heather Abraham is in the studio.

While there are everyday joys — puppies can be fun to have around the house, even with the challenges of housebreaking — the eventual rewards, says Sabo, are far greater.

“Seeing the difference a service dog makes in someone’s life is so rewarding. It is truly life changing.

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