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Canine Companions for Independence helps disabled find dogs

| Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, 9:03 p.m.
Joseph Leckenby thanks his assistance dog Inga after delivering a book in their Mt. Lebanon home Monday, October 8, 2012. Inga graduated through the program Canine Companions for Independence. (Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review)
Joseph Leckenby gets a kiss from his assistance dog Inga at their Mt. Lebanon home Monday, October 8, 2012. Inga graduated through the program Canine Companions for Independence. (Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review)
Inga delivers a book to Joseph Leckenby in their Mt. Lebanon home Monday, October 8, 2012. Joseph's assistance companion graduated through the program Canine Companions for Independence. (Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review)
Joseph Leckenby and his assistance dog Inga take a stroll outside their Mt. Lebanon home Monday, October 8, 2012. Inga graduated through the program Canine Companions for Independence. (Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review)

Inga, a yellow labrador, has a favorite spot: near Joseph Leckenby.

The 4-year-old assistance dog has been by his side for two years, helping with tasks his cerebral palsy makes difficult.

“I like her so much,” said Joseph, 13, while sitting in his family's Mt. Lebanon home with Inga's head in his lap.

Inga came to the family through Canine Companions for Independence, or CCI, a national nonprofit provider of trained assistance dogs for children, adults and veterans with physical disabilities. The organization will host its first Pittsburgh-region fundraiser, DogFest featuring Snoopy and Friends, Oct. 27. It will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. at Peterswood Park, Shelter No. 4 in Venetia.

The event will feature a pledge walk with trick-or-treat stops, a silent auction and a costume contest for humans and dogs. All proceeds benefit the organization.

Presenting sponsor is the Beth and Russ Siegelman Family Foundation; co-sponsors are Tim and Teri Dunlap. Tim Dunlap is president and chief operating officer of CentiMark roofing contractors, Canonsburg. Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, was a major supporter of Canine Companions. His widow, Jean Schulz, is a national board member.

CCI officials breed golden and Labrador retriever puppies, then send them to regional offices to await volunteer foster families when they are 8 weeks old. Over 18 months, the dogs are taught dozens of commands, including sit, down, heel and shake. Then the dogs return to the regional office for up to nine months of advanced training.

There is no charge for the dog, its training and ongoing follow-up services, which costs CCI $45,000 for each animal.

“I love the way dogs impact the lives of people,” said Jim Caprio, 59, of Upper St. Clair, CCI volunteer and Dogfest organizer. “A lot of people think this is a dog thing. It's really a people thing.”

Caprio has spent time around Joseph and Inga.

“You see how the dog treats the kid and how people treat the team. They don't treat him like a handicapped kid any more,” Caprio said. “It makes him like a magnet and more social. It just enriches the life so much.”

Inga responds to 45 commands, including “push” to close doors or drawers and “get” to pick up a dropped item. She can turn on and off lights, and knows “let's go” means it's time to walk. She accompanies the family just about anywhere.

But perhaps just as important as her ability to help with tasks is the companionship she provides Joseph.

“With Joseph being an only child with no sibling to hang out with, we thought it would be a great experience for him to always have a buddy, even if he's just watching TV or doing homework,” said Joseph's mother, Julie. “She is pretty much always by his side.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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