In 2009, I completed my first two-week Team Training program with Canine Companions in Santa Rosa, California, and graduated with my first Service Dog, PLAYA. Canine Companions provides highly-skilled Service Dogs to persons living with disabilities. They provide training and support to solidify and support those partnerships. Effective Service Dog partnerships allow disabled persons to more fully live productive and independent lives.
When I graduated from the Canine Companions Team Training Program in 2009, my fellow classmates asked me to speak on behalf or our group at our graduation ceremony. The following is the text of the presentation I made that day. Bear in mind that, at the time of this ceremony, I was still living under the belief that I had Muscular Dystrophy. It wasn’t until three years later that I’d be correctly diagnosed with Late Onset Pompe Disease.
My Canine Companions Service Dog, PLAYA, would be with me for the next ten years, until January 2019. At that time, PLAYA was twelve years old and I retired her from service. I applied for and was accepted to my second round of Team Training at Canine Companions in February 2019. In anticipation of being matched with a new Service Dog and in acknowledgement that I couldn’t effectively care for two full-size dogs, I made the heart-wrenching decision to part ways with PLAYA. Over the ten years we had been together, I had cultivated a warm relationship with the couple who had raised and trained PLAYA from a pup to eighteen months. We kept in regular touch over those many years and, when the time came to retire PLAYA, my first call was to them … to see if they would be willing to adopt her in her retirement. Their response was an overwhelming YES. And so, after having Susan and Bill hand me PLAYA’s leash in that 2009 ceremony, I had the privilege of handing that leash back to those who had raised and trained her as my ten-year companion. In February 2019, I graduated from Canine Companions Team Training with my second Service Dog, COPPOLA, who is with me now. PLAYA is now fifteen years old, in good health, and living outside of Seattle, Washington.
To learn more about Canine Companions, CLICK HERE.
Brian Terhorst’s Address On Behalf of the North Training Room, CCI Team Training Graduation, Santa Rosa, CA, May 30, 2009
Thank you all for being here. Today is the culmination of years of preparation on all fronts. Each of us has waited a long time to be here … and CCI breeders, puppy raisers, trainers and instructors have been busy preparing for the past two weeks. And, as with any commencement, we all stand on the threshold of the rest of our lives.
My name is Brian Terhorst and I am speaking on behalf of my teammates from the North Training Room Class.
In a few minutes, I’ll introduce my teammates. But I’ve been asked to share with you something of my own experience … in an attempt to convey the impact of the program we are completing at Canine Companions.
In my real-life day-to-day world, I am the General Manager of Northstate Public Radio. We’re the big NPR affiliate for northeastern California. I’m based at California State University in Chico.
I’ve worked in the non-profit world for almost 20 years and appreciate when I see an organization that walks its talk. When you go into any public room on the CCI campus, you’ll see hanging on the wall the mission of the organization. It reads:
“Canine Companions for Independence is a non-profit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships.”
I want to talk for a minute about how this organization “enhances the lives of people with disabilities.” The first thing we think of are these amazing dogs. That was the first thing I thought of. But these last two weeks have taught me something other.
I can’t and wouldn’t begin to speak for the world of people with disabilities. We are as varied and unique as people from any subset of the world. I can tell you something of my own experience, though. I was born 46 years ago with Muscular Dystrophy. MD is a degenerative muscle disease that has slowly claimed my ability to run, to ride a bicycle, to climb stairs, to walk on slopes and ultimately to walk at all. It has also compromised my overall strength and my breathing. Five years ago, I made the transition to a wheelchair. My chair helps a lot … and … I will continue to watch my strength and my abilities waste as MD works its course.
I have also lived an extraordinary life. MD is just a small piece of the man I have become. But my disability has certainly produced days when I felt broken and “not as good as” the rest of the world. I’ve spent days feeling misunderstood and a bit alone in all of this.
With that thought in mind, let me tell you what the visit to CCI has done for me, completely separate from partnering me with Playa – a magnificent creature who is going to make my life so much easier.
It has been a singular experience for me to share two weeks in the company of people who live with disabilities. After a day or two, I barely noticed the wheelchairs anymore. And then, I started to make friends.
This is hard for me to admit, largely because I’ve often felt alone in my own disability. But I realize that I have also isolated myself from other people who have disabilities that I don’t understand. Rather than negotiating the awkwardness, I’ve just avoided those situations and those people.
On one hand, this realization helps me better understand why people may have avoided me in the past – and left me feeling alone – but, on the other hand, it also makes me wonder how many people I have left feeling alone. Or even more unfortunate … how many wonderful people I’ve passed by, never knowing the fine human being who lives beneath a surface I just didn’t understand.
Well, over these two weeks I have taken the time to get to know the exceptional people who are graduating here today. This experience has opened my mind in ways that make me a much better man than the guy who arrived here on the 17th. I have a much deeper sense of self and I will spend the days ahead of me taking time to look deeper into the people around me. I’ve learned a lot about dogs but I’ve also learned a lot about people, including myself.
Let me introduce you to my fellow Service Dog Recipients.
Mike Ower is not on stage with us today; he left yesterday to attend his daughter’s high school graduation. Mike is a 49-year old computer programmer from Corvallis, Oregon. He’s married and has three kids; his son, Nick, was with us as Mike’s Training Assistant. Mike is a wheelchair user. When he was 20, he was in a motorcycle accident that broke his back and neck. I assure you, though, his sense of humor remains fully intact.
Mike left CCI with River, a beautiful 2-year old yellow lab/golden cross. River is a big strong dog who will pull Mike in his chair, sparing him the fatigue that comes from pushing his own chair. But second only to the amazing rush of having River pull him, Mike says he most looks forward to the constant companionship that River will provide.
Of his time at CCI, Mike says that he has never had the experience of sharing time with people who were all in the same boat. Here, we were all equal and were treated special – not less – because of our disabilities.
Sharon Graves is also 49 years old. When she arrived here, she announced proudly that she was coming here to represent Folsom and she will be leaving here representing CCI! Sharon has been using a wheelchair since she was 14 when Transverse Myelitis – a virus – left her paraplegic. She remained gainfully employed as an accountant until 2005. But after years of pushing her chair, Sharon’s shoulders were worn down and she left the work force on disability.
Sharon will be leaving here with a stately 2-year-old black lab/golden cross named “Sunke”. Sunke is going to relieve Sharon’s shoulders and help pull her chair. He’ll help her pick things up and help her with doors. And now that her daughter, Elizabeth, is getting older and is away more and more, Sunke will be Sharon’s constant companion.
Sharon’s high point of her time here was the night her husband Dan and Elizabeth arrived and met Sunke for the first time. Sharon loves the bond she’s made with the other team mates and intends to have them last a lifetime.
And then there’s Skip Osborn of Citrus Heights. Skip is here for his second CCI dog. For 12 years, Skip was paired with Sable. A year ago, Sable retired from service and is now living a life of luxury with a CCI Breeder/Caretaker. Skip’s wife is now paired with her second service dog and Skip is just completing his fourth round of team training. Skip was joined in our team training by his youngest sister, Lori, of Palm Springs.
Skip’s life seemed fairly normal for most of his younger days. He served 4 years in the Navy – two of those in Vietnam – where he was a photographer. Then he learned that he had late onset Friedrick’s Ataxia – a degenerative nerve disorder that has taken Skip’s balance and much of his fine dexterity. At the age of 34, Skip retired due to disability. He is now 62 and uses a wheelchair. For many years, Skip suffered from depression. He recalls that Sable saved his life on more than one occasion. Her main gift was her ability to draw Skip out of his dark places and remind him of the value of his life.
Skip will be leaving CCI with a spitfire black lab/golden cross named Florida. Florida celebrated her second birthday on our first day of team training. They have bonded very quickly and Skip already regards her as “the love of his life.” Florida will give Skip a reason to get up every day, keep him in a good mood, and help him with a wide variety of tasks.
As for me … I’ll be leaving here with a brilliant ball of energy named Playa. She is a two-year old yellow lab/golden cross. When she is on duty, she is the most disciplined creature you will ever see. When she is released, she is the biggest, most playful puppy you can imagine. Playa will be the belle of the ball at Chico State. She will help me with doors, and light switches, picking things up and be my sidekick through the next phase of my life.
The other night, we all sat in The Great Room at the dorms and raised a glass to our instructors. We’d like to thank them again here – to Shelley and Meredith – and everyone who participates to make CCI the transformative experience that it is for each of us.