Canine Companions for Independence will be having it’s 15th annual Tales and Tails Gala on Saturday, Nov. 12, at Rosen Shingle Creek. Visit www.cci.org/talesandtailsgala
Diesta Gundacker has spent the past 12 years training man’s best friend to be someone else’s best friend.
The Winter Park resident is a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence. For her, saying goodbye to the puppies she trains is a great moment.
“To spend 15-18 months with a puppy and then turn it over to somebody else is a great feeling,” she said. “We want them, but somebody else needs them.”
Gundacker has trained 10 dogs to enhance the lives of people with disabilities, an experience that has not only changed the lives of the people who receive the dogs, but has also had a lasting impact on Gundacker and her children, who she said have learned so much about selflessness and helping others from the experience.
Gundacker raises the pups, which are either golden retrievers, black or yellow Labradors or a crossbreed of both, for an average of 18 months before sending them on to advanced training, which takes another six months to a year, where they learn skills such as turning on light switches and opening cabinets and doors.
The next step, the matchmaking process, requires the graduates to live in a dorm at the CCI campus for two weeks where they interact and train with different companions until a match is made.
“Once they learn to bond, they can transfer that bond to anyone,” she said. “I think it is harder for people than it is for the dog — even though we don’t want to think so.”
Gundacker is currently training an 8-month-old black Labrador-golden retriever mix named Odiele. Her last graduate, Dulce, was placed with a family from South Florida about three years ago.
Making a match
David Ruttenberg, whose daughter Phoebe was matched with Dulce, said he thought a companion would be a good way to help facilitate his autistic daughter’s communication skills.
“It has been a love affair ever since,” Ruttenburg said.
“It's been nearly two years now, and I can honestly tell you that everywhere we bring Dulce, whether to a grocery store, library, hotel, park or school, she lights up the room,” Ruttenberg said.
The Ruttenberg family feels blessed to have Dulce in their lives, he said, and the experience has given Phoebe a newfound confidence that she carries to her third-grade class every day.
“Dulce is more than a family member to all of us,” he said. “She is a tonic, elixir and lever that enables our daughter to communicate and connect lovingly with the world around her. And for that, we're indebted to Diesta, her family and everyone at CCI.”
The 15th annual Tales and Tails gala on Saturday, Nov. 12, is the largest fundraiser for the Southeast region of CCI. It includes a silent and live auction, dinner and cocktails, and features animals in a program by SeaWorld’s professional animal trainer Joel Slaven.
“[The event] has grown quite a bit over the past 15 years,” said Cathy Rodgers, director of development. “And because it is the largest fundraising event we have, the success of the gala is very important to the region.”
Three canine companion graduates will be honored at the event and will share their stories about how their companions have changed and improved their lives. Previous graduates and CCI dogs of appropriate ages will also be at the event, in addition to Gundacker and her 8-month-old puppy.