One woman’s quest to teach the world about the miracle of service dogs
By Wendy Wollenberg
A former special education instructor, Darlene Sullivan found she had to follow her girlhood dream. “When I was in the sixth grade, I wrote a letter to The Seeing Eye to see if I could help,” she recalls, referring to the venerable guide dog organization. “I even tried to train my Schnoodle to be a service dog.” Sullivan interned with visually impaired people and their service dogs throughout high school and college; then, after teaching special ed for three years, she followed her “burning desire” to work with service dogs.
Finding the guide dog industry for the visually impaired well managed, Sullivan decided to forge into less-chartered territory. “I discovered that the service dog-training industry was emerging,” she says. “This was motivating for me because it requires different types of training for various disabilities. You need to stay creative as a trainer.”
Sullivan founded Canine Partners for Life (CPL) out of her home in 1989. By 1997, the organization had grown so large that it needed its own space, which now includes an office building, kennel, training center, and housing for an emergency weather caretaker situated on a 45-acre property in Cochranville, PA. Over the years, CPL’s programs also expanded from service dog training to include home companion and seizure alert programs. During that year, Sullivan was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome and partnered with her own service dog, Nelson. Nelson retired nine years ago, and Sullivan has a new companion named Ripley.
Using positive reinforcement training techniques, CPL prepares its dogs to assist the specific needs of their guardians. Puppies, mostly Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Standard Poodles, and mixes of those breeds, come to CPL at eight or nine weeks old from an in-house breeding program, respected breeders, and rescue groups. The dogs live with a foster family for the first year, then begin their customized training at the CPL facility for another year. The recipient comes to CPL for the final three weeks of training, during which they will spend every moment bonding with their service dog. “This type of training allows for a ton of creativity,” Sullivan says. “We create dogs who think, who are problem solvers.” The organization also conducts regular follow-up and recertification programs, an initiative that Sullivan says sets CPL apart from other service dog groups. CPL is one of the first service dog organizations in the world to be accredited by Assistance Dogs International.
In addition to placing dogs with people with physical and cognitive disabilities, CPL also recognizes the positive impact dogs can have on others. CPL runs a Prison Puppy Program, in which carefully screened inmates at six different institutions raise and help train dogs for the first year, learning valuable life and career skills along the way. CPL also has a “courthouse companion dog” named Princess who works with a child victim advocate to assist children who have to testify in court. Sullivan and her staff find that each dog displays different propensities for their jobs. While every dog is trained to become a service dog, some have a “career change,” as the CPL staff calls it, and are better suited to home companion or residential situations, such as living with an autistic child or an elderly person. “The dogs tell us what’s best for them,” she says.
Sullivan says that the most rewarding aspect of her work is seeing the light in people’s eyes when they realize that, because of a service dog, life doesn’t have to be as difficult anymore. She recounts the story of a recent recipient: “We worked with a 20-year-old young woman who won’t have to wear a helmet any longer because her service dog will now keep her safe.”
For more information on Canine Partners for Life, visit K94Life.org.