Wal­dorf cou­ple raises as­sis­tance dog, then lets her go

Volunteers as­sist non­profit in pro­vid­ing ca­nines to work with dis­abled chil­dren

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By JAMIE ANFENSON-COMEAU jan­fen­son-comeau@somd­news.com

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.

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