ELKIN — The Adagio Vineyard was filled with barking dogs and wagging tails Saturday as the vineyard held its first Dine for a Canine Dinner with Canine Companions.
Adagio Vineyard worked with Canine Companions for Independence organization to raise awareness of the nonprofit organization and its services while providing people with hors ‘devours and wine tasting. The winery also sold wine bottles at discount, giving a percentage of all wine sells to the group. Winery Owner Timothy Wahl gave a tour of the winery.
“We’re very pleased with the turnout. We’ve had about 35 people at the dinner,” said Caryn Freas, community events coordinator for Canine Companions. “For us, this is a way to spread awareness to this community. I’ve got to talk to lots of new people who’ve never heard about Canine Companions. It’s all about the dogs. People come for the dogs and they stay for the people.”
Canine Companions for Independence is a nonprofit organization that provides service dogs for people with disabilities with the exception of blindness. It is a national organization that’s been around for about 40 years. The headquarters is based in Santa Rosa, California and has six regional training centers stationed throughout the country. The southeast region training center is based in Orlando, Florida and its from there that the organization reaches out to the other states and trains dogs to give love and assistance to people in need.
Bryan Williams, southeast region executive director, flew from Orlando to be at the event.
“It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort to train a dog,” said Williams. “The dogs are bred and once they’re eight weeks old they go to puppy trainers. The trainers raise them for 18 months, teaching them basic commands and discipline. After 18 months the dogs are turned into the headquarters at Orlando where they receive six to nine months of professional training and learn the more difficult commands such as retrieving items, opening doors and flicking light switches on and off. After that time they are placed with their owners who are known as graduates and the graduate receives on-going care from the organization alongside their new dog. The dogs perform a lot of simple human tasks like pulling a laundry basket. From a social perspective, it helps people feel more comfortable.”
The dogs assist anyone with disabilities with the exception of blindness and help people with a variety of conditions such as autism, as well as amputees and paraplegics.
“The dogs become hands and feet and unconditional love that people need to help them get through the world,” said Bill Saramtis, one of CCI’s board members. “A few things these dogs can do is turn on light switches, push elevator buttons, retrieve things dropped on the floor, and they can even pull wheelchairs. A hearing dog can alert people to the sounds of a smoke alarm or the ringing of a phone or doorbell. Those are sounds that you and I take for granted but not the hearing impaired.”
CCI uses black and yellow labs and golden retrievers for the program. The program needs to look for a specific temperament in its dogs and while they have tried other breeds in the past, labs and retrievers have had the highest success rate.
“The dog must want to work,” said Williams. “Usually you think dogs want to play and have fun and our dogs do play and have fun but they have to have that desire to want to work and you can’t force a dog to do that. Our dogs enjoy what they do.”
Saramtis did a welcome at the beginning of the dinner and talked briefly about CCI and the growth of the Southeast Region of the organization. He has been involved with Canine Companions for 25 years.
“When I started I never knew what a service dog was,” said Saramtis. “We had nothing in the Southeast at first and were working out of a garage. We’ve come a long way over the years and it’s an honor to work with an organization that changes people’s lives. I want to thank everyone for being here and being apart of this and wanting to help make a change.”
This is the first year the Wahls have done the Dine for Canine’s event and they hope to make it an annual gathering.
“We’ve been supporting Canine Companions for 18 years now. Our best friends at Florida took us to the CCI Gala for the first time 18 years ago and that’s where our work with CCI started. This is the first time we’ve done this here so we didn’t really know what to expect,” said winery owner and wine maker Tim Wahl. “We did the fundraiser in Charlotte with Bill and Kelly at their place last year and we wanted to offer to do something for the organization here in Elkin in wine country. They do such a wonderful job as a nonprofit. The people that are involved with that have a passion for making everybody’s life a little bit better.”
Many people who knew little about the program came out for the dinner that evening.
“It seems to me they have it all worked out,” said Aileen Cahill. “And of course they’re using my favorite type of dog. They’re so calm once they’re trained. Some of the things those dogs can do is just fascinating. I could never teach my dog to close the door.”
“I think it’s an amazing organization. I’m so proud of my family for being instrumental, especially of my brother Bill, who’s been on the board forever,” said Sandy Saramtis. “I’m a nurse so I always talk to people about the CCI and spreading the word. It might just be what they need. We want to make people feel more independent when their independence was taken away from them.”
Two of CCI’s dog raisers were at the dinner with their puppies Bambi and Gamma. Guests could see a huge difference between the hyperactive puppies and the trained dogs standing alongside their graduates.
“Bambi is seven months old and she’s already learned so much,” said puppy trainer Elizabeth Barkas. “The training is very rewarding. When they learn something new and you see them use it, that growth is wonderful to see. She’s my second dog in the three years I’ve been working with CCI.”
“It’s a lot of work but it’s work I love doing,” said puppy trainer Jennifer Payne. “Gamma is my first dog and it’s awesome. She’s so smart and incredible and very calm for a puppy. She’s got a good head on her shoulders.”
Kay Gunter, a recent graduate with CCI who received her dog in August, was at the dinner to give a speech about her experience with her dog, Cruz.
“I’m really gracious for Canine Companions and its family. I was on a waiting list for four years,” said Gunter. “The application process took a year. That really screams a lot of people who apply for this program. When I turned 60 I thought I would never get called and right after that they contacted me and said, ‘we may have a dog for you.’
“I’m an amputee and for a long time people noticed and asked, ‘what happened to your leg?’ When I got my dog Cruze, nobody ever sees that anymore. Cruze does a lot for me. He tugs the laundry basket through the house through eight or nine rooms, wagging the whole way. He picks up packages at the front porch, anything I drop, he retrieves it for me, flicks light switches on and off, anything that’s in the back of the dryer, he sticks his head in there to get it out. He’s just amazing. And people ask me all the time, ‘doesn’t he get to be a dog?’ He gets to play, he gets to be a dog. As a graduate I’m so grateful and I can’t say enough about this organization. This dog has truly changed my life.”
Troy Brooks may be reached at 336-258-4058 or at [email protected].