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Amanda Olsen

Nico VI, above, is being trained by volunteer Andrea Spencer, of Stony Brook, to one day assist people with disabilities. Photo from Canine Companions

By Amanda Olsen

There can be little doubt that Andrea Spencer is a dog person.

Nico with volunteer trainer Andrea Spencer. Photo from Canine Companions

The Stony Brook resident has rescued Labradors since 2011, fostering and training them while they were waiting for their forever homes. She also co-chairs the DogFest Long Island fundraiser at Marjorie R. Post Community Park in Massapequa and is currently raising a puppy, Nico VI, for Canine Companions.

This is a national nonprofit organization founded in 1975 that provides highly trained assistance dogs to people with disabilities free of charge. Puppy raisers provide specially bred puppies a safe home, take them to obedience classes, serve them a healthy diet, provide socialization opportunities and give them lots of love. Each hour spent caring for a Canine Companions puppy is vital to its development as a future service dog. 

Spencer’s puppy-raising journey began with a rescued yellow Lab named Ruby, who came from Louisiana to live with Spencer and her family. She remembers her fondly.

“She was really my heart dog,” Spencer said. “She was really the dog that brought me into all of my volunteer work.” 

Around 2017, a friend first mentioned Canine Companions as a possible service opportunity, and the organization kept entering Spencer’s life. She attended a couple of puppy matriculation ceremonies, a kind of graduation where the dogs move on from living with their raisers to formal training at the Canine Companions center. It was a turning point for Spencer.

“The graduation was an inspirational, beautiful, wonderful thing,” she said. “It was basically just life changing for me as far as working with Canine Companions.”

After a long, happy life, Ruby passed from lung cancer in August 2020. Spencer credits this loss as the catalyst for her puppy raising.

“And once we kind of settled from that storm, my husband said, ‘We’ve always thought in the back of our heads, you’d like to do something more for Canine Companions. Why don’t we raise a puppy in Ruby’s honor?’ I said, ‘You know what, that’s such a great idea.’”

The family began the process, first with the application in January 2021, then an extensive interview in March of that year. Once that part of the process was over, and they were approved, all that was left to do was wait. 

That September, Nico arrived in New York, and the Spencers were now raising a future service dog for Canine Companions. 

Nico is a Lab/golden retriever cross, which is a special mix Canine Companions breeds for its service dog program. This mix is both personable and very trainable. Spencer said that there are many things Nico picks up on without training, and when she does train him, he learns quickly. 

“With the Spencer family’s love and guidance, Nico is on his way to becoming a Canine Companions service dog, and will someday be matched with an adult, child or veteran with a disability free of charge,” said John Bentzinger, Canine Companions regional public relations and marketing coordinator, in an email. “Nico is being taught basic commands and socialization skills and, in another seven to 10 months, he’ll be returned to Canine Companions where he’ll work for six months with our professional instructors learning over 40 advanced commands that are useful to a person with disabilities. Nico will learn how to open and close doors, turn lights on and off, and pick up dropped items to name just a few.”

One of the biggest challenges is training the puppies to control their excitement. 

“They’re really bred to love people and be with people and be with everybody,” Spencer said. “So that actually provides a little bit of a challenge as a puppy raiser because they really want to go see everybody and they get excited. So, we work on having good manners in public.”

Being in public and being well socialized is critical to the service dog’s success. The dog has to be comfortable in multiple locations on a variety of surfaces. “We want him to be completely focused in these locations, not just in the home where he is the majority of the time,” Spencer said. 

Some commands are specific to his training as a service dog.

“They’re taught to bark a sequence of three, four or five times, and then quiet is paired with that because they don’t want the barking for 20 minutes,” she said. “They just want you barking to kind of alert someone.”

There is a huge network of support for people who decide to raise puppies for Canine Companions. Not only are there informal connections with other volunteers, but the national nonprofit provides each raiser with a mentor called a “puppy pal.”

“It’s a mentoring program with a raiser who’s raised at least three dogs,” Spencer said. “They hook you up with that person and throughout their puppyhood, you can call them or email them or text them.”

Of course, the No. 1 thing Spencer gets asked is how she will feel when Nico leaves her care and goes on to formal training.

“The Lab rescue was like my training or my internship,” she said. “I would have fosters in my house anywhere from one week to two months, and then they would go on to their adoptive homes. And believe me, it wasn’t easy, but you see that you’re helping. I think having a resident dog in the house helps. I look at this not like Nico’s my pet, but he’s my job. You have to have the right mindset for it.”

She also credits her son, Jared, who has Autism, for helping to forge a connection with Nico’s future recipient.

“I think having a child who is disabled and seeing that this organization serves that community has made that connection for me.” 

For Spencer, the decision to raise again is a given.

“I will definitely raise again, because it’s just such a wonderful experience,” she said. “I think as you subsequently raise, even though it’s different, you have all of the basic knowledge, the training tools, the understanding of what they need to learn. Of course, you’re going to have different obstacles with each puppy, because puppies are like humans, they’re all different. But yes, I definitely think we’ll raise again.”

Her advice for people considering raising is straightforward.

“I think if you’re considering raising you have to have a certain mindset, that you’re raising this puppy not for you but for to help somebody,” she said. “You definitely need to have the entire family on board, because it does become a family affair. You’re going to have challenges, but you’re going to also have great successes. There is a very strong network of support right here on Long Island. And really, we’ve become a family. We call it the Canine Companion family. And it’s something that is so rewarding on so many levels. And you know, hopefully more people will join in and take part in this because without the puppy raising there are no dogs.”