Winter Garden resident and Disney Tri-Circle-D Ranch Manager Robin Walker enjoys sharing her experience as a volunteer puppy-raiser for Canine Companions for Independence.
Just as Mickey Mouse and Pluto are a dynamic duo, so are Robin Walker and her Canine Companions for Independence puppy, Walt.
In fact, you may even see the two of them at Walt Disney World Resort. Walker is the manager of Disney’s Tri-Circle-D Ranch — and it’s a great training ground for the namesake of the theme park’s founder, too.
Walker, a Winter Garden resident and avid animal-lover, became a puppy-raiser for CCI last year. CCI provides service dogs to individuals with disabilities at no charge, and volunteer puppy-raisers such as Walker allow the organization to offer hope and independence to thousands nationwide.
Having worked around horses and fostered dogs for years, Walker already had plenty of experience with animals. When she first heard of CCI and its puppy-raising program years ago, she was intrigued. But she never truly thought she could do it.
“I just really wasn’t sure what the parameters were,” Walker said. “It was just kind of one of those blue-sky ideas, and then one day it’s like, ‘You know, I really need to go in and talk to them,’ because the passion builds — it never waned.”
Volunteer puppy-raisers provide CCI puppies with a safe home, take them to obedience classes, serve a healthy diet, provide socialization opportunities and give lots of love. They also teach the puppy manners and 30 basic commands.
Eventually, Walker couldn’t wait any longer. She decided to fill out an application to become a puppy-raiser. After completing an interview and finding out more about the process, she knew it was something she wanted to do.
“I just look at this creature and think, ‘He’s amazing, and I get to be part of that.’ I’m lucky to be able to do that.” — Robin Walker
“It just really sparked a passion in something I like to do but also for a purpose,” she said. “Through something I loved, I could make a difference in somebody’s life and be around other people who are doing the same thing and have that same passion. The recipients of these dogs are appreciative, and there’s just so much involved and positivity around it.”
Puppy-raisers receive their puppy at 8 weeks old and generally keep them until they are 18 months old and ready to matriculate into the organization’s training program. Walt is Walker’s second CCI puppy; her first, Idris, matriculated earlier this year.
“I’m his main caretaker; I’m everything to him,” she said. “My responsibilities are to make sure he’s happy, he’s healthy, (and) he’s well-adjusted and well-educated.”
Walker always knew Walt was a special puppy, and his arrival to Florida proved that. CCI puppies are specially bred for their purpose, and Walt came from a litter in Santa Rosa, California. He arrived in Kissimmee by private jet, thanks to a volunteer pilot.
“I was trying to find this airport in the dark and got out there and there’s nobody there,” Walker said. “But then all of a sudden, this plane starts to land, and I must admit I got teary — me and the other puppy-raiser who was there. You see this little private jet coming in, and it’s just impressive. You’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, my puppy is on that plane!’ ... The pilot gets off, and they greet you and they’re like, ‘Yeah, we’ve got some precious cargo for you!’”
At just 5 months old, Walt already is making dreams come true. He often goes to work at the Tri-Circle-D Ranch with Walker, donning a special yellow cape as he gets in his socialization and educational experiences.
Volunteer puppy-raisers are expected to take the puppies many places to offer socialization opportunities and allow for exposure and acclimation to new sights, sounds and environments.
“We’re really grateful for companies that do allow our puppy-raisers to do this,” said Martha Johnson, public relations and marketing coordinator for CCI. “It’s also just a great socialization opportunity for them to be exposed to all these different sounds and people and things. … It’s really helpful that (they) have that support.”
Walker said Walt gets to meet the cast members and guests, bringing smiles to everyone he meets. He even has gotten to meet some of the horses at the ranch. In addition to helping with Walt’s own education, Walker said she loves that his presence educates those around him.
“It really does help educate them on when guests come in with disabilities and what that means, and to feel comfortable around somebody that has a disability and a dog,” Walker said. “You can approach them, ask questions and talk to them, and not feel disconnected or afraid. I think he’s really helped with education as far as that’s concerned.”
And although one may think Walker was paired with Walt because of the Disney connection, it actually was pure coincidence. CCI’s breeding program assigns each puppy litter a letter, progressing alphabetically from A to Z. Each puppy will be given a name that begins with the corresponding letter. Walt happens to be from the “W” litter and was named by his breeder/caretaker in honor of the wonder and excitement associated with the name.
Being a puppy-raiser is not always easy. It takes a lot of time and dedication, and in the end, there are some tough goodbyes involved. But goodbye is the goal, and it’s why Walker and so many others selflessly pour their heart into their puppies and their purpose.
“You’re not in it for you,” Walker said. “Part of it is because it brings you joy, and it’s part of who you are and the people you want to be around. But you’re in it for the dogs and the people that are going to get these dogs and that you’re going to get to meet.
“The goal is for them to be successful,” she said. “People are always asking me, ‘Well, don’t you want him to fail? Don’t you want to keep him?’ It’s like, ‘No, I want him to be successful.’ … I just look at this creature and think, ‘He’s amazing, and I get to be part of that.’ I’m lucky to be able to do that.”
“We couldn’t do our work without puppy-raisers,” Johnson added. “They’re the very key part of the puzzle. Giving (the puppies) away is difficult, but they understand the purpose. We’re just really grateful for Robin and companies that support their work, as well.”