KENSINGTON – Twelve-year-old Hannah Albus was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was born. She struggles both physically and emotionally.
In November, when Hannah and her family received their first service dog, Nasca, through Canine Companions for Independence, Hannah’s life changed in more ways than one.
Canine Companions for Independence is a program located in Santa Rosa, California. That caters to people all over the country.
“We have a colony of about 100 breeder dogs that live in the homes of volunteers and are then returned to us when they are 18 months old,” said Debra Dougherty, executive director of the Northeast region of CCI.
The Northeastern region for CCI runs from Maine to Virginia.
“We try to immediately place the puppy into the home of a volunteer who we call puppy raisers,” she said.
“They raise and socialize the dogs for 18 months. They give them basic obedience and teach good manners and then return them to us. We then give them temperament evaluations, and then they start advanced training with our professional trainers who teach them the more advanced commands,” Dougherty said.
Joan Baer, a puppy raiser for CCI, received Nasca when she was 8 weeks old.
Nasca was the tenth puppy Baer and her husband raised through CCI. They started raising puppies in 2002.
“We thought we were done with raising puppies at number nine, Fabio, but Regina and Dave, close friends whom we met through CCI puppy raising, talked us into co-raising Nasca with them,” said Baer. “The deal was that they would raise her for the first half of her puppyhood, we would then take her the rest of the time and if we needed each other in between we would help each other out.”
Hannah and her family heard about Canine Companions for Independence through Hannah’s ballet class, Music in Motion, which has a special program for kids with special needs, primarily motor issues.
A girl in Hannah’s class came in with her service dog and Hannah’s mother immediately looked into the program.
“Hannah was having a lot of medical PTSD which consisted of panic attacks and anxiety brought on from way too many invasive medical procedures,” said Sarah Albus, Hannah’s mother.
“Any time one of her sisters were gone or if I was out of sight she would have a really hard time. I started thinking, our three other daughters are gone be gone in a few years and Hannah needs a buddy. Hannah needs a companion that will be there for her and cuddle with her,” said Albus.
Because of Hannah’s age and disability, Sarah was trained as Nasca’s primary handler.
When the Albuses started the process of finding a service dog, it was mostly due to Hannah’s anxiety. However, the social benefits became an added plus.
“Hannah’s really great with talking to adults, but she has a harder time with kids, and that’s also because kids have a harder time coming up to Hannah. The social door opener was something that we thought would be really nice,” said Albus.
Right away, the Albus family saw an improvement in Hannah’s anxiety. While Nasca can do so much more physically than Hannah needs, her family says the emotional strength that Nasca has given Hannah has been way more than they expected.
“Nasca comes right over to her (Hannah), and she’s right there. It’s as if they’re in tune with each other, and I know that she’s not trained for that, but they’re just the sweetest animals. And because they’re trained to be sort of watching you for signs and commands, Nasca definitely gets it and definitely knows when Hannah isn’t feeling well,” Albus said.
“We are so happy they found each other. To all of us, they seem like a perfect match from just the time we were able to see them together at graduation. They just seem to fit! Hannah and her family are wonderful,” Baer said.