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Love is a four-legged Word for QCC Employee

July, 2020
  • Lucey (front) and Brinley prepare for a lifetime of service.
    Lucey (front) and Brinley prepare for a lifetime of service.
  • Juno became Edith Morris's new service dog and lifelong companion.
    Juno became Edith Morris's new service dog and lifelong companion.

Sometimes our most trusted and valued companions are of the four-legged variety. For some, these amazing dogs have become a person’s eyes, ears, and hands, not to mention best friend. No one knows this better than Kathleen “Kate” O'Connor, program manager for the Center for Workforce Development & Continuing Education at Quinsigamond Community College.

Since 2016, Ms. O’Connor has been part of Canine Companions for Independence®, acting as a puppy raiser for the organization. The non-profit organization is dedicated to enhancing the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs to those in need at no cost.

“With coronavirus/COVID-19, now more than ever people are isolated, particularly those with a compromised immune system. They really rely on these dogs to do everything from getting a cell phone, opening the refrigerator to companionship,” she said.

Dogs have always been a part of Ms. O’Connor’s life; however, with the sad death of her last beloved family dog, she vowed she was done owning a dog. Then the unthinkable happened. A close cousin, Bill Lucey, who grew up in the same neighborhood as she did, had an accident that left him wheelchair bound. To help in navigating his new world after the accident, Mr. Lucey applied for a Canine Companions service dog through the Canine Companions organization, and in August 2016 went to the Canine Companions training center in Long Island, N.Y. to begin team training. Team Training is where the dogs are paired with a graduate during an intensive two-week team training period before going to their forever homes.

“Any family member could attend the graduation and so I went. I ended up falling in love with the organization, its mission, and how life-changing it is to the graduates,” Ms. O’Connor said.

Right then she decided to become a puppy raiser, a role that requires taking an 8-week-old puppy into a person’s home for 18 months to become socialized and learn basic commands. They train four types of assistance dogs to master over 40 specialized commands: Service Dogs, Skilled Companions, Hearing Dogs and Facility Dogs. The dog breeds used include yellow labs, black labs, golden retrievers and golden/lab mixes. In 2017, “Juno,” a yellow lab, became her first puppy and for the following year and a half, she became a part of the O’Connor family.

For 18 months, Juno went everywhere with Ms. O’Connor; even attending work meetings so she could get used to a group setting. All too quickly the time was up and Juno was returned to Long Island to attend professional training, where dogs go for six months after the time is up with their puppy raisers. In May 2019, after completing six months of professional training and the two-week team training, Juno was placed with her graduate, Edith Morris.

“You spend a lot of time with the dogs and love them so much, but you know this is puppy raising and that they must leave to find their forever home,” Ms. O’Connor said, adding, “What is so unique is that the new owner (graduate) gets to meet the puppy raiser and family, and most graduates keep in touch with their puppy raisers.”

While Ms. O’Connor was sad to see the first dog she raised leave, she keeps in touch with Ms. Morris to this day. Ms. O’Connor has gone on to raise two more puppies, Brinley and Lucey (named after her cousin). Brinley has been with her since Sept. 2018 and was due back in Long Island in May, but due to the outbreak of the coronavirus/COVID-19, just returned to Long Island on July 20 to start professional training. Lucey is the new puppy that Ms. O’Connor is now raising.

Currently there are over 400 people on the waiting list to get a dog, with close to 100 in the Northeast region alone. One of the biggest issues the Canine Companions organization faces is raising money to fund the non-profit. In addition to puppy raising, Ms. O’Connor is the current DogFest New England Vice Chair, an online event that is raising funds and awareness for the mission of the organization.

“It’s exciting to see the changes you can make in people’s lives,” she said.