“I grew up on a dirt road in the country,” Chris says. “I didn’t have neighbors to play with. Our dogs were my friends. Many times I came home from school and was met with verbal abuse from my alcoholic father. Dogs comforted me. I swore someday I’d grow up and help dogs help people.”
Echo Road in Bloomfield Hills, MI, is now peppered with homes, though still a dirt road. Chris Kittredge now lives in Santa Rosa, CA. She still loves dogs.
Chris volunteers as a breeder/caretaker for Canine Companions, Inc. (CCI). In the past 20 years, she has whelped 15 litters. As a puppy raiser, she also trains individual dogs. Her trainee follows her everywhere; she teaches basic commands. Sixteen months later, she turns her pup over to an advanced training center. After 6 months more work, dogs are placed with physically or emotionally challenged people. After 2 weeks of intense team training, dogs and owners attend a graduation ceremony.
Though Chris is also a professional photographer, she and husband Bob, a retired builder, have turned their home over to what Chris calls her “life’s work.” The sun room contains a whelping box for 3 weeks. The living room then becomes puppy central with a larger box of tunnels and toys. Two weeks later, puppies take over the garage.
CCI breeds and cross breeds Labrador and golden retrievers. Chris says, “These amazing animals love to work and give independence back to their owners.”
Chris is one of 70 breeders in northwest California. She has whelped a whopping 120 puppies. As an old pal from Kingswood School Cranbrook, I’m blown away by my classmate’s dedication. Puppies born at her home leave at eight weeks and are placed with puppy raisers across the country. Most likely, Chris will never see them again.
If a puppy Chris has raised makes it through the program (only 40% do), Chris attends graduation. On stage, each trainer hands over a leash to a dog’s recipient. “You give your heart and soul for 16 months, and then you say goodbye. 6 months later, at graduation, you’re briefly reunited. Handing that leash over is gut-wrenching. But when you see the magic your dog makes with its new forever companion, it feels so right. It’s why I do what I do.”
One pup Chris birthed went to a young woman whose hearing impairment had kept her housebound. After receiving her dog, she went to college. A dying AIDS patient refused to eat or talk. A CCI dog jumped into bed with him. He opened his arms and hugged the dog and sobbed for an hour. Finally at peace, he died the next day.
CCI dogs also work with sexually abused children. Some can’t tell a grown-up what happened to them but are able to talk to a dog. Those dogs accompany those children to court.
CCI is the world’s largest organization that breeds and trains dogs for challenged individuals (other than the blind). Its service dogs push elevator buttons, open doors, pick up keys. Clients include children with cerebral palsy and vets with lost limbs or PTSD.
As someone who loves dogs but freaks out when fur clings to the sofa, I’m impressed by Chris’ willingness to let dogs take over her home and her heart. In April, 2012, Chris tripped over a puppy barricade and broke her leg in four places.
Chris told her physical therapist, “I have a litter to whelp the first week in October. And I want to dance at my son’s wedding the last week in October.”
“It’ll be close,” her PT said.
“I worked hard,” Chris says. “I made it.”
How’s that for turning lemons into Labradors?