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This is part of a monthly series about side gigs—nurses with interesting side jobs or hobbies. This month, we spotlight a volunteer puppy raiser.


In 2017, Catherine Burger, BSN, MSOL, RN, NEA-BC, now a Media & Brand Specialist for RegisteredNursing.org, was in the midst of building her own home-based business after having retired from corporate nursing. Along with her husband and their youngest son, Burger had moved from Sacramento to San Diego, California, and she was looking for a volunteer opportunity.

“I kept seeing puppies with yellow vests in my area,” recalls Burger. “We had lost our dog several years prior, and it took many years before I was ready for another dog. I told my family that I believed we were meant to raise a service puppy, so we looked into it more.”

Burger had friends already involved with Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), so she and her family were able to talk with them and ask lots of questions. After completing an online application, as well as a home visit by a CCI staff member, they were approved and placed on a list to receive a nine-week-old puppy to raise.

“Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization, was founded in 1975 to provide expertly trained service dogs to enhance the lives of people with disabilities,” explains Burger. “These dogs are not just providing help with daily living by being the arms, legs, and ears of their partners, but also open to opportunities to live with greater independence and confidence.”

CCI provides these dogs to adults, children, veterans, and professionals, depending on their needs. The breeds used are yellow and black Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and mixes of these two breeds. “Most service-dog programs charge up to $40,000 for a trained assistance dog. Through volunteer puppy raisers like us, plus donations and sponsors, CCI is able to provide the trained dogs at no cost to the recipients,” says Burger.

When they started working with CCI, Burger and her family received a lot of training. “CCI provides mentoring, guidebooks, and many areas offer weekly training classes. As a puppy raiser for CCI, you commit to attending at least two puppy-training classes each week. There are professional dog trainers available for consult as needed if the puppy has any specific issues,” says Burger. “It is an extremely supportive program and community of puppy raisers. For example, we watch each other’s puppies when anyone is traveling.”

Burger and her family are raising their second puppy for CCI. Their first puppy, Nancy VI, is now a Change of Career (COC) dog, and they adopted her. Unfortunately, Nancy wasn’t able to get over having car anxiety. “We worked closely with the professional trainers to try to break her of the panting, drooling, and stiff body language,” says Burger. “While we were thrilled to adopt Nancy as our own COC dog, we were disappointed that she was not able to move into professional training to offer help and hope to someone in need.”

As puppy raisers, Burger and her family volunteer to provide everything for the puppy for the first 10 months of its life. Then they turn the puppy in for professional training. “We pay for the food, vet bills, vaccines, anything the puppy needs,” says Burger. “We are responsible to teach around 30 commands to the puppies at home — which are modeled through puppy class sessions — such as sit, down, back, side, heel, up, car, off, etc. Along with this training, our most important role is to socialize the puppies in public to get them ready to handle numerous situations in order for them to provide the most support to their future handler. Puppy class also provides field trips for the puppies to experience trains, buses, and even practice with getting through TSA and onto an airplane. The more confidence through varied experiences we can provide to the puppy, the more prepared they are for professional training and better prepared to be a strong assistance dog.”

Although they give so much to CCI and the community through raising puppies, Burger says that she and her family get a lot back as well. One of the best experiences has been seeing how the lives of those who receive dogs from CCI are radically changed. “Parents of an autistic child who, after receiving a dog for their son, were able to sleep through the night for the first time in 8 years because having the dog in bed gave him so much comfort,” says Burger. “I have also participated several times at Paloma Valley High School’s ‘Paws for Finals,’ where puppy raisers in the area bring their puppies to the school during finals. The kids are able to come pet and love on the dogs to minimize their stress. It brings tears to my eyes every time when I see a group of the popular kids, the geeky kids, the Emo kids, the shy kids, and the athletes all sitting around with their hands on my puppy, sharing dog stories together. It is also interesting that the puppies are absolutely exhausted after this stress-absorbing time with the kids!

“We are very proud to be associated with such an organization,” says Burger.

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Michele Wojciechowski

Michele Wojciechowski is an award-winning writer and author of the humor book Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box.

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