Waldorf couple raises assistance dog, then lets her go
Volunteers assist nonprofit in providing canines to work with disabled children
In “Romeo and Juliet,” playwright William Shakespeare said, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” For Waldorf couple Sharon Thompson and Joey Martell, parting with the puppy they raised for 18 months is sweetened by the knowledge that she has gone to help a child with special needs.
“When you actually get to meet the family and see what Perla has learned, and what she’s going to be able to do for this individual and their family, you say, ‘Holy Cow, this is really going to help someone,’” Thompson said.
Thompson said that as their son prepared to graduate from La Plata High School in 2015, they looked for something they could do for others.
“We were about to become ‘empty nesters,’ with our son going off to college, and we wanted to do something to give back to the community,” Thompson said.
While searching online, Thompson found out about Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit based out of Santa Rosa, Calif., that provides trained assistance dogs to adults and children with disabilities.
The couple applied to become foster parents, and in March 2015, they traveled to CCI’s regional headquarters on Long Island to undergo training with their new, 8-weekold foster puppy, a yellow Labrador retriever named Perla.
“The first time we saw her, she had her little teeth on the kennel grill and she was growling, and I thought, ‘She’s going to be a handful,’” Martell said. “But she was awesome.”
While at the regional facility, Thompson learned CCI’s rules about how to obey commands, how to teach them to relieve themselves, and even how to brush the puppies’ teeth,” Martell said.
“The teeth brushing is really very important, because they’re going to be using their mouths a lot, for picking things up, or moving things, so they’re really careful about how you take care of their teeth,” Martell said.
The couple worked to teach her basic commands and also socialization skills. The socialization skills are especially important, Martell said, because the dogs need to remain calm in a variety of different situations, and so Martell said he and Thompson took Perla to ice rinks, horse farms, restaurants, fire houses and other places. Martell also brought Perla to work with him at the Pentagon, took her on the Metro, and traveled downtown Washington, D.C., with her.
They also took her to a training group in Reston and trainings held at the local PetSmart. Even play was a form of training, Martell said.
“On the weekends, training was an eight to 10 hour event,” Martell said. “So we probably worked on training her at least 10 to 12 hours a week.”
Martell said Perla took to her training well, with one small exception.
“One of Perla’s big weaknesses, was when she’d see a little child, she’d get all excited and lose her composure. She really liked little kids,” Martell said.
In August 2016, it was time for the couple to say goodbye to Perla. They brought her to Long Island for her matriculation ceremony, and she wore a graduation cap and gown, before beginning an intense six-month training.
“We teach the dog to be invisible in public, to ignore food on the floor, all the things you need in a service dog,” said Laurel Ferraioli, graduate program manager for the Northeast region.
The dogs that graduate from the program are evaluated on their strengths, weaknesses and personality, and matched with disabled individuals on CCI’s waiting list.
Perla was matched with 10-year-old Owen Silampa of Chantilly, Va., a 10-yearold boy who is wheelchair-bound.
Owen’s mother Pam Silampa said Perla is able to help him by picking up things he drops, by pulling a string to shut doors behind him and pushing buttons with her nose. Perla was taught to respond to over 40 advanced commands.
“If I ever fall over in my chair, if I’m playing outside and my parents don’t see me, Perla can bark and let them know to come over to me,” Owen said.
Owen said one of the best things Perla does is to be there for him to snuggle with.
“Our whole family fell in love with her,” Owen’s mom said. “Owen feels calm and safe when he’s
around her, and we’re grateful to her puppy raisers and to Canine Companions.”
Perla and Owen received two weeks of intensive training together at the regional center before a Leash-Handing ceremony in February, during which Martell and Thompson officially handed Perla’s leash to her new family.
“I cried, because I knew she wasn’t coming back,” Martell said. “It was tough saying goodbye, but we drove home thinking we did something wonderful.”
Thompson said the couple has applied to become foster parents to another CCI puppy.
In this February 2017 photo, Joey Martell of Waldorf hands over the leash of Perla, a yellow Labrador retriever he and his wife raised, to Owen Silampa of Chantilly, Va., while Pam Silampa, Owen’s mom, watches behind him.