The Invisible Industry Episode 2: Canine Companions

This is a transcript of the second episode of The Invisible Industry, a podcast brought to you by the North American Renderer’s Association (NARA)

Anna: Hi, everyone, and welcome to the Invisible Industry, a podcast where we discuss and educate on everything you didn’t know, you didn’t know about agricultural rendering, brought to you by the North American Renderers association, or NARA. I’m your moderator, Anna Wilkinson. I’m the director of communications for NARA.

And joining us today is our host, Marcus Wintzer, today’s co host, Richard Weeks, and, of course, our two guests, Eli Gerard and Marty Covert. Thank you so much, everybody, for joining us today. Marcus, I know you want to introduce everyone a little bit more fully, so I’m going to go ahead and turn it over to you.

Marcus: Hi, everyone. We’re so happy to have you here with us all today. As Anna mentioned, I’m your host, Marcus Wintzer, and I’ve been a part of rendering since before I was born. Wiith us today is our co host, Richard Weeks, who is director of sales at the Dupps Company.

Dupps has been involved with rendering and supporting the North American Renderers association for many years, and Richard is an active participant in the North American Renderers Assiociation communications committee. Thanks for joining us today, Richard.

Richard: Hey there, Marcus. Happy to be here. We really got a couple of great guests today and a terrific topic, so I’m really looking forward to this one. Speaking of our guests, our first guest today is from the organization Canine Companions, Eli Gerard, an instructor at Canine Companions Southwest region.

We appreciate you being on the show, Eli, and I know you’re looking forward to explaining all the great work you do at NARA’s support, and partnership with your organization. Thanks for being here today.

Eli: Yeah, thanks for having me on and giving me a chance to kind of talk a little bit more detail about all the ins and outs that make Canine Companions the organization that it is. And also, thank you for all of NARA’s support.

Marcus: Our second guest today, as many of you will know, is Marty Covert. Marty is the owner of Covert Operations and has been a NARA consultant for 28 years, and as their meeting manager. She has also been heavily involved with NARA’s partnership and support with Canine Companions. Thanks so much for being here today, Marty.

Marty: Thank you, Marcus. And thank you for the opportunity to talk about Canine Companion, what it’s meant to me, what it’s meant to all the other people that have helped, and that it helps. And, again, thank you.

Marcus: Eli, if you wouldn’t mind starting us off with describing just what it is that Canine Companions do.

Eli: So, in a nutshell, Canine Companions is a nonprofit organization that provides expertly trained service dogs to adults, children, and veterans with disabilities. And we provide these dogs free of charge, and we also provide lifetime support for our clientele.

And you may notice that companions is in the name, but these dogs are much more than that. And I’ll get into a little bit more detail on that later as they perform a lot of practical tasks for people with disabilities.

Richard: Hey, Marty, I’ve, uh, got a question for you. I know you were the one that recommended Canine Companions to Nara. Can you maybe talk about that a little and also touch on Nara’s involvement and our partnership with them over the years?

Marty: Richard, thank you for asking. And yes I was the one that recommended it. Six years ago, I was invited to an auction that was to benefit Canine Companion in California, and was incredibly impressed with the organization.

While I was there, I contacted the vice chairman of the convention committee, who is in California, and said, “Hey, next year, when they have this, you need to come. This is just an amazing event.” His response was, “Why can’t we do something like that?” So that’s how it all got started.

We have had, since then, have had an auction every year and raised over $120,000 for the organization, and we hope to be able to continue it. So, actually, that goes to Eli. Can you talk about some of the clients that you work with, the categories of the animals that are trained, and what are their main jobs?

Eli: Good question, Marty. And also, thank you for all that you’ve done over the years, as we really, really appreciate it. So, as I said before, we serve adults, children, and veterans with physical and cognitive disabilities, and we serve people with over 65 disabilities. And we break this up into five main categories of placements.

So we have something called service dogs, skilled companions, facility dogs, hearing dogs, and dogs for veterans with post traumatic stress disorder. And then within each of these categories, these dogs will help with practical tasks for their handlers. And they actually know over 40 different commands that can help in a myriad of ways.

So, for example, for our service dogs, some commands that they might utilize would be something that we call the formal retrieve, which is a difference than playing fetch with the dog, which we typically think of the dog retrieving something. In this, it’s imagine someone who is utilizing mobility equipment, and they drop their phone or their keys, and either they do not have the ability to bend over and pick up the item, or that would use a lot of energy to pick up the item.

So our dogs would be trained to pick up the dropped item, hold it gently in their mouths, because we don’t want them crushing a $1,000 smartphone, and then they can deliver the item to their handler. Other commonly used commands by our service graduates would be a push command to help with automatic push plates.

They use a tug command that can help open doors, and they can even be trained to turn off and on lights when entering or exiting a room. And then we have another category, which is our skill companions. And this is actually a three part team, which consists of a child with a disability, an adult facilitator, and then the dog.

The adult is the one that handles the dog and gives the command, and the dog is performing that command for the child. So we could modify something like that push command to maybe help turn pages of a book to make reading more fun for a client. The dogs can nudge a child’s hand or leg to help redirect them during stressful transitions, maybe going to a doctor’s visit or appointment or a therapy if they’re getting anxious.

They can also do something like a cover command, which helps to provide deep pressure, which can often be comforting and can help the child calm down after a stressful transition. And then we have our facility dogs, and these dogs work with professionals that are in healthcare, rehabilitation, and the criminal justice setting.

And these dogs can be used to help a handler get more repetitions with a client. The client is more likely to practice words in speech therapy if the dog is the one picking the word that they’re going to be practicing, or if they’re working on turn taking, maybe having the dog take a turn in a game.

A recipient is more likely to allow a dog to take a turn if they were struggling with maybe their peers taking turns. And then we have two more categories, and that’s our hearing dogs and then our dogs for veterans. Our hearing dogs alert their handlers to sounds in the environment.

This could be something like cell phones, someone saying their name, doorbell, or smoke detector. When the dog hears the sound, they will nudge their handler to alert them that there is a sound going off in their environment, and then they will bring their handler to that sound.

And our final category is our dogs that serve veterans with post traumatic stress disorder. These dogs will move in different position around their handler’s body to help create space while in public, and they can also interrupt anxiety by either nudging their hands or legs. And they can even be taught to tug off a blanket to help interrupt a nightmare or wake someone up from a nightmare.

Richard: With respect to the types of dogs that you train. Can you tell me, do you breed your own dogs, or can a person donate a puppy if they happen to have a litter? Can they donate one to Canine Companions? And then I’d also be interested to know what breeds that you like to qualify for this program?

Eli: That’s a very common question that we get because people see all different types of dogs doing all different kinds of working roles, and there’s definitely a place for everything. But for us, we do utilize our own breeding program. Since we’ve been around for 45 years, we have tried many different types of breeds, we’ve tried to utilize rescues.

And like I said, there is definitely a place for each breed and for each dog if you’re looking for a working role. However, for us and our goal of being able to help as many people as possible, we have found that utilizing dogs from a breeding pool for their exemplary physical health, their temperament, and their willingness to learn, that’s been the best way for us to reach our goal.

And to your other question about the breeds that we use. We use labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and crosses between the two. So Labrador golden retriever crosses with the majority of our dogs being these lab golden crosses. And there is a reason why we choose these dogs, and it’s their temperament.

For one, they have outstanding temperaments, their willingness to learn, so they can be on the go out, helping a handler throughout the day, but they’re also able to turn it off and lay under a desk and relax while somebody’s at work. And they also transfer really well, which is not the case with all dogs.

So they can go from their breeder caretaker to their puppy raiser, and from their puppy raiser to a professional trainer, and from their professional trainer to their graduate, and they do really well with these transitions. So that’s why we’ve been using these breeds and why we’ve been using our own breeding pool.

Marcus: It sounds like it’s a pretty tough job for the dog. What age do they typically retire? How long are they with a family, and when do they actually even go into start working with a family or an individual?

Eli: So typically, they’re going to start their work with a potential client when they’re about two years old. And our graduates, as we call them, they’re going to work with the dogs for about eight to ten years. That’s assuming that everybody stays in the same health. So both Canine Companions, client and the staff, will work together throughout the duration of the placement to monitor the health and working ability of the dog.

And as the dog begins to get older, the client and staff will develop a transition plan to make the process as easy as possible, because it’s not going to be easy to think about having to retire your dog. And so, generally, we start this process and are looking towards retirement when the dogs are about ten years old.
And after retirement, some of the dogs will remain as pets with their partners, and then others might be placed into loving adoptive homes to just enjoy their well deserved retirement. And I think since we actually are talking about retirement, this might be a good time to mention kind of like the beginning phases of the dog’s life.

So it actually starts with volunteer breeder caretakers. These people take care of our breeder dogs, and if they have a female breeder, they will often welp the litters in their homes. And then when the puppies are about eight weeks old, they will get shipped all around the country to one of our different regional training facilities where they’re going to be placed in a home with our volunteer puppy raisers.

The puppy raisers are then going to train around 30 different commands. They take the puppies to all their veterinary appointments. They attend training classes, they write monthly reports, they socialize the pups to all different sights and sounds and people. And then when the puppy is about a year and a half to two years old, that’s when they turn into one of our regional training centers, and that’s when they start their professional training.

And so in the professional training, that’s when the dogs are going to go through their health screening. We check for eyes, hearts, hips, temperament testing and they’re constantly being evaluated in public and around different mobility equipment. And the trainers that are in the facility, something that I would be doing, would be solidifying the basic commands that the puppy raisers taught.

And then we start teaching the advanced commands, like picking up the dropped items, the opening and closing of doors, the turning on and off of lights. And then finally, after about six months of professional training, the dogs are kind of typically ready for team training. Some dogs might need a little bit more time. And that’s when they are ready to be placed with their potential graduates, until we find a perfect match.

Marcus: So, Eli, you mentioned what happens to a dog once it gets to retire. It gets to relax on the couch like everybody else wants to. What happens to that individual who needs another service dog, if they still need help? Clients can reapply for their next service dog.

We have some clients that have come back that are actually on their fourth or fifth Canine
Companion service dog, and they’re called successors because they’re going in again. And since everyone’s lives and needs can change throughout the years, it’s completely up to the client whether or not they want to apply for a successor or not.

If we know that their dog is retiring, we will bring up the possibility of applying for a successor dog, but we have to leave the decision up to them as maybe it’s something that they no longer need or they’re getting more help in other ways. I would say, typically, the majority of people that have had a Canine Companions dog will apply for a successor.

Marty: You mentioned graduating. NARA, two years ago, raised enough money with the auction to have the opportunity to name a dog. So when our turn came around, we named the dog Nara 2, and he was a really lovely puppy. He, however, decided to be a little bit of a rebel and really couldn’t graduate.

Did not make the cut. So can you tell us, we know what happens when they retire. Can you tell us what happens when they don’t make the cut?

Eli: Yeah, absolutely. So the dogs that, as you say, that don’t make the cut, we do have a term for that, and they are actually called release dogs.

Sometimes we call them a change of career dog, but release dog is the typical term that we go by. So the dogs that are released from the program, more often than not, they are adopted by the volunteers that raise them. Some release dogs have gone on to careers as therapy dogs, which is actually a new program with canine companions, still in the pilot phases.

Some have gone on to guide dogs or even in other working capacities. There are a lot of different reasons a dog could be released, and they could be either behavioral or health. So maybe an example of a health issue of why a dog might be released from the program.

It could be something as minor as allergies, but since we’re trying to help mitigate energy used throughout the day, we want to make graduates lives easier. So something like persistent allergies or ear infections where a graduate might have to constantly go in to see a vet, that could be enough to have a dog released from the program, because it would be too much management for a potential graduate.

Other reasons why a dog might be released from the program could be a behavioral release. So, again, even looking at something really minor, trying to be good ambassadors and being respectful of the public, if we have a dog that barks on leash, that might be okay in the pet dog world, but that would not really be something that would be acceptable within the service dog world.

But we do not make these judgments as snap judgments. What we would do is we would work together as a training team, and we would look through all of the notes that we have from the puppy raiser files. We would look at all of our training notes, and we would make sure that it’s not an isolated incident.

It would be something that was consistent and persistent throughout the puppy’s life and throughout their training, that through evaluations that we have had to determine that the dog would not be suitable as a service dog.

Richard: Marty, question for you. I know you’ve been to Canine Companions, to the training facility, and maybe you could take just a moment to share the story of what you saw and what you experienced on your visit.

Marty: I did have the opportunity to visit the Santa Rosa campus, the training facility, and really had no idea what to expect. But from the first ten minutes, it was a very wow experience. We were brought into a lovely facility, with sort of a living room area, and different trainers and different people spoke to us and talked about background and everything else.

We then went into I’m not sure, Eli, you correct me if I’m wrong, but the residence where this was a surprise to me. I didn’t realize that when the clients were coming in to meet their dogs, they lived there for two weeks, and they have this lovely, lovely, comfortable facility for people to be in to get to know their dogs and dogs get to know them.

We went from there into the training area. So I think, should you have the opportunity to be able to go to one of these, it’s really quite an experience, and Eli maybe you could speak to how many training facilities there are and if there are possibilities of visiting.

Eli: So what you were talking about is our dorms. So we actually have six different regional training facilities spread across the country. So we have northern and southern California, we have Ohio and Texas for the central part of the country, and then we have New York and Florida for the east coast.

And so you are correct that when a dog or dogs are kind of ready for a potential match. So whatever we’re seeing on paper with the dog and what we see on paper for a potential client, that client will then travel to one of those regional training facilities, whichever falls within their geographic area.

And they would stay, as you said, on campus in one of our fully accessible dorm rooms so that they don’t have to think about a hotel or traveling to and from a place, they can be right there. And that’s where we would hold classes, where we would have our lectures, our hands on training, and they would stay in the dorms.

And that’s also a first way where they can kind of have their first nights home with the dog and kind of start the bonding process in an area where they also still have staff support instead of just kind of giving them some training information and sending them along their way.

Marcus: I know Richard and I both live in Ohio. If we wanted to go make a visit and stop in, see how it works, is that something we could do? And who do we talk to about doing that?

Eli: I think by having me on here, that’s a good first step.

Marcus: Just have to do a podcast with you.

Eli: You got your foot in the door. But if anyone else was looking to visit, what you can do is you can go to and look for whichever regional training facility would fall like, closest to you, and then you would actually just contact the center and set up a visit.

Public tours and visits, they were affected due to the pandemic, but we are having people come visit and we are trying to make that as accessible as possible.

Richard: Eli, I did have another question for you. Through this podcast, we’ve had a chance to talk about some of the challenges that you face at Canine Companions, but it’d be great if you could also share one or two of your favorite stories or your favorite experiences.

And because this podcast has a video component to it too, if you have a few pictures to share, that’d be great as well.

Eli: Many of my favorite moments actually happen during the team training process and during the matching process, but I did think of kind of a follow up story that really struck a chord with me.

So as trainers, we definitely are very proud of the dogs that we train, but we also are incredibly supportive of all the dogs that graduate. Our teammates, any dog that goes on, we’re just happy that they’re out there in their working role. There did happen to be a team that came through, a team training, and they got matched with a dog that I had trained on my string.

And part of our follow up is that I think it was in the first month, they first had an email, and then it was a phone call, and then we had another little email follow up. And so within the first, maybe one or two months, I got an email from this skill companion team.

So that’s that three part team where it was a mother facilitator, the dog and the daughter and the mom had emailed me for some training tips. And basically Easter was around the corner. And they always do an Easter egg hunt with their family, and their daughter would always look for just one or two eggs and then would either get frustrated or lose interest.

So the mom asked if there was a way that they could have their dog actually carry the Easter basket for the daughter. And so I emailed them back with a training strategy of here’s what we’re going to start with. We’re going to have just holding the basket for a couple of seconds, and then we’re going to build up duration.

And then once the dog can hold it for, I don’t know, a minute or two, we can start adding eggs in because that’s going to change the picture. And so the mom worked on this for a couple of weeks. She emailed back with where she got stuck a little bit.

We had a little bit back and forth, and then a few weeks went by and I got an email with some pictures of this dog walking around the yard carrying an Easter basket. And the daughter and the dog team did the entire Easter egg hunt. Found all of the eggs, didn’t give up, didn’t get frustrated.

And it just kind of shows that there’s the impact that these dogs could have in ways that you wouldn’t even think about sometimes. So it’s pretty awesome. So that’s probably one of my favorite.

Marcus: How can people get involved to support or partner? If someone needs a service animal, how do they go about getting one from Canine Companions?

Eli: So if someone is interested, they would go to, and then they can do a little bit of research under each of those categories that I talked about as far as what type of dogs that we provide. And then if they find that we are not the right organization for them, maybe they’re looking for a medical alert dog, then I would recommend that they go to Assistance Dogs International, which is our accredited guiding body for all assistance dogs organizations.

Marcus: The North American Renderers Association, which is made up of lots of different renderers,rendering companies, and then also the affiliates, like Dupps company, they do a lot for their local communities. Sometimes, they give their time, sometimes it’s money. But they do give a lot to local, charitable organizations like sports teams, education, community events, and a lot more.

If you tune into a future episode, we’ll delve more deeply into how a local renderer may be contributing to your community.

Richard: Hey, thanks, Marcus. I think all us renderers can absolutely attest to that, and we’re really looking forward to that episode.

Marcus: I’d like to thank everyone for being here, Richard, for being the co host, Marty, for bringing Canine Companions to the North American Renderers Association’s attention, and Eli, for everything that you do at Canine Companions. Really appreciate all of you being here, and thank you again for joining us today.

Eli: Thank you, Marcus.

Richard: All right. Thank you, Marcus.

Marty: Thank you, Marcus.

Anna: Thank you so much, Marcus and Richard, Eli and Marty, thank you so, so much for joining us. What a wonderful episode. For more information about the North American Renders Association or rendering, you can visit our website at, stay curious, everyone.

And to all our rendering listeners out there, stay seen and stay green.

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