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Arizona Puppy Raiser Shapes Future Service Dogs

Over the last few years, Linda Winkler has had many conversations with many dogs. Such is the life of a volunteer puppy raiser.

“You’re going to be a forever friend,” she said, almost whispering as she looked into the big brown eyes of a Golden Retriever/Labrador mix. “You’re going to give loves. You’re going to make someone feel safe. You know how to do that, because you’re such a good boy.”

The good boy is Kodiak, the fifth puppy Linda and her family have raised since 2009. He’s now a handsome 23-month-old with floppy ears and cream-colored fur, and the knowledge of countless commands that Linda taught him using kibble.

Before Kodiak, there was Janelle and Marabel, Trixie and Tiffany, all of which Linda and her family got when they were about 8 weeks old. After about a year-and-a-half of training and paying for their food and vet care, the Winkler family let them go.

Winkler said they keep getting the same question from people.

“How can you give them up?” she said.

And she keeps having the same answer.

“How can we not?” she replied.

These are not just good dogs. They are so good, in fact, that Winkler’s Chandler home is full of white carpets and breakable figurines.

These dogs can be a godsend to the people they’re carefully paired with by the nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence (CCI).

Watch any CCI promotional video and you’ll see smiling people, many in wheelchairs, grateful to have a four-legged friend to keep them company, and often open doors and pick up things dropped on the floor. These dogs can become hearing or therapy animals, along with so many other possibilities.

They offer the kind of help and camaraderie Winkler thinks her sister, who was born with cerebral palsy, would have loved.

“If I could have given her one of these dogs, I would have done it in a heartbeat,” Winkler said.

But her sister never got that chance. She died nearly 20 years ago.

“So, I do what I can, for someone else,” Winkler said.

She does that by raising dog after dog, with no plans to stop. Winkler’s even got her next puppy already in the house. Six-month-old Mochi is actually Kodiak’s little sister. Winkler raised their mom, Marabel, too.

Many of the CCI’s puppy raisers are as prolific as Winkler, some even more so, and that’s a big part of how the nonprofit has been able to place more than 5,000 dogs since 1975 – with each one given away for free. Private donations and some grants help, too. But the puppy raisers are such a big part of this that one CCI manager calls them “angels.”

A few days after that conversation with Winkler, some of those angels were gathered in Oceanside, California, to drop their dogs off at one of the six training centers across the country.

It’s clear some of the pooches were overwhelmed.

“I cannot believe she’s acting this way,” said a smiling older woman, pulling along a squirming, golden-haired dog. “Too bizarre.”

But for the most part, it was the humans who weren’t doing so well.

One guy, holding the leash for a young black female, said he was trying to be strong for his dog, Lori.

Becky Hein, puppy program manager for Canine Companions for Independence in the Southwest Region, explain what happens to dog that don't graduate.

“But I’ve got my sunglasses on,” he said. “That’s to hide the tears, so no one can see.”

Linda Winkler was there too, after driving since 3 a.m. with her husband and grown daughter – and Kodiak, of course. She looked sad, and Kodiak seemed a little stressed.

The women at the registration table kindly joked that they shouldn’t ask her how she’s doing.

“I know,” Winkler said. “It’s a rough day. I’ve been crying for a couple days now.”

That’s because Kodiak is about to leave Winkler to embark on his six final months of training – training so rigorous and specialized that only about half of the dogs graduate.

But when it was time to finally hand over Kodiak’s leash to a CCI employee, there were no tears from Winkler. Just a proud, sad smile.

“I love you!” she said to dog that was never really hers – but always kind of will be. “You’re going to do great! You’re going to do great, you big, handsome guy!”

As Kodiak was led away to his kennel, he didn’t look back. But Winkler seemed at peace. She knows she’ll see Kodiak again. Hopefully, it will be at graduation, with a new owner who needs him – and loves him just as much as she does.

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Stina Sieg was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2013 to 2018.