Winter Garden family raises Canine Companions for Independence puppies

For one Winter Garden family, raising puppies for Canine Companions for Independence is a gift that allows them to give back.

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  • | 12:50 p.m. February 20, 2019
  • West Orange Times & Observer
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For the Dold family, there are always tears shed when it’s time to say goodbye to each puppy they have raised for Canine Companions for Independence.

Most recently, they said goodbye to Hale V — the most recent puppy they had spent more than one-and-one-half years raising — during CCI’s puppy-matriculation ceremony Friday, Feb. 15, at Faith Point Church in Oakland.

As they crossed the stage with Hale, reality began to sink in — it was almost time to send the pup onto the next step in his journey.

It’s bittersweet, especially considering that these dogs become part of the family for a year or two. But the Winter Garden family — Dr. Chris and Erika Dold and their children, Daven and Broden — knows that in this case, goodbye is the goal.



Founded in 1975, CCI is a nonprofit organization that assists people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and support. The four types of assistance dogs CCI trains include service dogs, hearing dogs, facility dogs and skilled companions.

Although CCI trains the dogs and matches them with their human partners, the organization relies on volunteer puppy raisers such as the Dold family to care for and socialize the puppies as they prepare them for training.

Puppy raisers provide CCI’s puppies with a safe home, take them to obedience classes, provide socialization opportunities and give lots of love, among other responsibilities.

The Dolds became puppy raisers for CCI seven years ago. Chris Dold, a veterinarian, is SeaWorld’s chief zoological officer and leads the company’s zoological professionals, as well as oversees all animal programs and rescue and rehabilitation. It’s because of SeaWorld’s involvement with CCI that the family decided to give back, too.

“I used to volunteer at the (CCI) center helping with stuffing envelopes and anything that needed to be done, and then we started puppy raising,” Erika  said. “Obviously, we love animals and we love dogs, but we just love to give back. We’re very fortunate, and this is our way of giving back. It’s very important to us that our kids learn selflessness and sacrifice and to give to another human being.”

For Chris, the opportunity was a natural fit. Having cared for animals for years — both as a veterinarian in a professional setting and as a pet owner himself — he and Erika wanted to use their gifts to give the ultimate one back to those who needed it. 

“We wanted to be able to care for a dog and raise a dog — and have our kids care for and raise a dog — and to have social service on top of that where the dog can go on and help someone who needs it – that allows us to use our special talents to help someone,” Chris said.

Puppy raisers typically have the dogs for about 18 months, but it can vary depending on multiple factors. They are responsible for feeding a healthy diet and obtaining veterinary care, as well as attending obedience classes at CCI a few times a month. 

“I would say by the end of the 18 months we will not only have introduced the puppies to life in general, but also they will know about two dozen commands that we teach them,” Erika said. 

In general, CCI puppies have a more structured regimen than that of a family pet. After all, the puppy raisers essentially are preparing the dogs for a lifetime of success, service and companionship to the human partners they will be supporting.

“As a family and as a vet, we view the puppy as slightly different,” Chris said. “There’s a lot of times where they’re a family dog hanging out with you, but their job starts at that early age. All of us as a family become a training team. We know the special rules the puppy has, and we all work together and follow those rules.”



There were 35 puppies in CCI’s southeast region’s February matriculation class. And although everyone is excited to see the dogs move onto the next step in their training, there are always a few tears shed. In fact, tissue boxes were placed around the sanctuary if they were needed throughout the ceremony.

“This organization, but ultimately the connection and bond, is what makes dogs so special, that they can do this kind of thing,” Chris said. “We feel grateful to be part of the journey of any one of these dogs’ lives. There’s an opportunity for service, and that’s the ‘why.’”

"These puppies put their paws around your heart the moment you meet them, and the bond just grows and grows with each day. But when you see it come full circle and you see the end result and how it changes someone’s life, it’s worth it." - Erika Dold

From 8 weeks old to now closer to 2 years old, Hale has been on many journeys with the Dolds — including a visit to the mountains in North Carolina and to weekly yoga class with Erika.

“He has been going to yoga class with me once a week for the last year,” she said. “His last yoga class was Wednesday. Everyone in class knows him, and we took a big group picture with him. He has his own mat: He sits on his mat and does not move for an hour.”

For their children, Daven and Broden, saying goodbye to the dog they have treated as family for more than a year is never easy. 

“It’s sad, and I think the worst part is the video that they play (at the ceremony),” Daven said. “You don’t really think about it that much, but as the day comes and you walk him on the stage, you get sad. But you know he’s going to help someone.”

Erika couldn’t help but get teary-eyed as she patted Hale during their last few minutes together, his brown eyes seeming to smile as he leaned up against her.

“Everyone asks, ‘How do you do this, how do you let the animal go?’ and the question I get a lot is, ‘Don’t you get attached?’” she said. “These puppies put their paws around your heart the moment you meet them, and the bond just grows and grows with each day. But when you see it come full circle and you see the end result and how it changes someone’s life, it’s worth it. These animals do so much for these recipients. It really does make it worth it.”

“We feel very lucky to be able to do this and be part of the CCI family and organization,” Chris said. “We haven’t thought about the end — we just think about the next (puppy).”


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