Rickard Rakell spotted him from a distance. A plump, eight-week old golden retriever with a yellow vest taking in the sights and sounds of his environment. He goes by Turner V (the fifth) - a name bestowed upon him because he was the fifth-born puppy in a litter of eight. A new dog to the Canine Companions for Independence's Southwest Training Center in Oceanside, Turner V will undergo rigorous training with the goal of one day becoming an assistance dog.
"He's so soft," Rakell says, clutching the pot-bellied puppy like a baby. "He's a favorite of mine already. Can't really beat the puppy smell. It's almost kind of freaky when you start smelling the puppies."
Taking advantage of an off day between games last month, Rakell and his fiancée Emmeli Lindkvist made the drive to Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) to learn more about the work it does to provide expertly trained assistance dogs and get to know a few of the recent graduates. It's a new charitable partnership Rakell and Lindkvist have with the Anaheim Ducks Foundation and CCI called 67 Assists.
The charitable program will support CCI and its mission to enhance the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships. In addition, 67 Assists will provide opportunities for training service dogs in a live sporting event environment, offer the fun experience of watching a Ducks game to clients and families and promote awareness and education of service dogs, along with fundraising activities, to the Ducks community.
"We provide service dogs to children, adults and veterans with disabilities at no charge," says Simi Balter, Executive Director of Canine Companions for Independence. "We really believe in the transformation that can happen when you pair a human and a canine together."
Rakell and Lindkvist found out about CCI when Emmeli was perusing Instagram, Rakell says. Almost immediately, Rakell and Lindkvist wanted to find a way to become involved.
"We're super passionate about dogs, especially with our two black labs [Heinz and Stella]," Rakell says. "We started liking this organization because of how much they do. When we were down here previously, they showed us all their training. They had some of their graduates here to tell us their stories. It was emotional and touching. We wanted to help out in any way possible. We feel we can contribute. Something we're going to like spending a lot of time with."
The visit last month happened to be on the day before graduation for a handful of the dogs at the facility. Among them was a golden retriever trained for an educational setting. In that environment, a facility dog helps engage students in school and special education classes. According to CCI's website, one of the most valued qualities of the facility dog is the unconditional love and attention it gives to the clients and patients with whom it interacts. This dog, in particular, can give someone a hug with a simple tap on the shoulders.
"With our dogs, it's not even close to what these dogs do with the people they're getting paired with," Rakell says. "It's amazing to see and hear all the stories. It's hard for some of the people here to ask for favors all the time. Simple things. To have a dog that's going to do all that for you and also be there emotionally is so amazing to see. We're going to try and do everything we can do to shorten up that waiting list."
Laurie Dunne has been a volunteer puppy raiser for CCI since 2002. She says she normally gets a puppy when it's eight weeks old and gives them back when it's around 1 1/2 years old, or roughly 20 months. Turner V is her latest project. "He's not the biggest in the litter, not the smallest, but definitely one of the most vocal," Dunne says. "He's a puppy in every sense of the word. He wants to bite, chew and bark at everything."
Eventually, Turner V could become another graduate of CCI. But the area of expertise is up to him. "One of the things I like about Canine Companions is they let the dog decide what skill it has," Dunne says. "Some dogs aren't cut out to be service dogs at all. They just want to hang out with their friends. We call this college. They'll come here to go to college, and they'll say 'I just want to hang out with my buddies.' They're released and usually go on to become wonderful pets. For the dogs that decide they do want to work, Canine Companions will look at what skill sets that dog brings to the table.
"Is this a dog that really alerts to noise? Maybe it'll be a good hearing dog," she says. "Is this is a big sturdy dog that would be able to pull a wheelchair? Or, is it a dog that's really attracted to children? Then it could become a skilled companion. I've had dogs I thought would absolutely never graduate, and they surprise me. I've had dogs I thought would do really well in the program, but then not so much."
Rakell's visit meant a lot to those at the facility, including CCI board member and client Lance Weir - a Marine Corps Reservist veteran. Weir was paralyzed in 1993 on a canoeing trip near his hometown of Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. When his hat fell off into the river, he tried to retrieve it, but his head hit a submerged rock and shattered his C5 vertebrae. Weir had a chance to express gratitude to Rakell during some downtime.
"I've been a part of this for 15 years, and we've never had someone like yourself as a part of a big organization," Weir says, with his assistance dog Elijah resting quietly by his wheelchair. "Somebody as awesome as you to come through and want to be a part of it. I was thinking how special that is. There's no telling what we can do with your help. It really means a lot to me, personally, coming from where I came from. It's an organization that saved my life. To have you come be a part of it is really special."
Giving Rakell and Lindkvist a lay of the land that day was CCI public relations and marketing coordinator Stacy Haynes. "It's so amazing to have the support from Rickard and Emmeli," she says. "Just to have a professional athlete take such interest in our mission and what these dogs can do for people. We're so excited about 67 Assists. Just the awareness it can bring for our mission to the Ducks organization and the hockey community. People can learn about our mission and what these dogs can do."