Canine provides much needed companionship to ML teen

Published Oct 2, 2013 at 12:01 am (Updated Oct 1, 2013 at 5:18 pm)

When Joseph Leckenby dropped his pencil on the living room floor in his comfortable Mt. Lebanon home, immediately, Inga fetched the item.

But, Inga is not your ordinary Labrador retriever and Leckenby is not your average 14-year-old high school freshman. Leckenby has cerebral palsy and Inga is his canine companion. Dogs, like Inga, help people, like Leckenby, who have physical, cognitive and developmental disabilties, live a more independent life.

Because of Inga, Leckenby does live a normal life. He attends Bishop Canevin. He rides horses, works out at the gym, and plays Wii. He even has played hockey and it was there, at a rink in Ohio, that he and his parents, Julie and Kim, learned about Canine Companions for Independence. The organization is the largest nonprofit provider of highly trained assistance dogs.

Founded in 1975 and headquartered in Santa Rosa, Calif., Canine Companions trains four types of dogs—service, hearing, facility and skilled. The organization also provides injured veterans with service dogs.

The group accepts only a limited number of applicants each year. Selection is based on need. While getting approved isn’t difficult, the process is daunting. It begins with an interview where a candidate’s needs are assessed. “They met Joe and got to know him,” said Mrs. Leckenby. After being placed on a waiting list for two years, Joseph met Inga and in August, 2010, she came to live with the Leckenby family.

“It was something I had wanted for Joseph,” Mrs. Leckenby said.

Because Canine Companions wants dogs and their disabled friends to partner well together, they specifically select labs and goldens or a cross between the two for breeding. They are nurtured by volunteer caretakers for eight weeks. Then they are transported to one of the company’s five regional campuses across the country. Volunteer puppy raisers then care for and provide basic obedience training and socialization until the pups are 18 months old. Over a period of six to nine months, professional instructors teach each dog to master more than 40 commands. Then they move on to Team Training where they are matched.

During a two-week training session, where 10 applicants met with a dozen dogs, Inga and Joseph bonded. Joseph and his parents went to the kennel every day from 9 to 5 for the first week. The second week, Inga lived with the Leckenbys in their hotel room. They catered to Inga’s every need, from feeding to grooming the dog.

“I really wanted Inga,” Joseph said. “We hit it off right away.”

Since Inga was the best fit for Joseph, Canine Companions selected her for him.

Today, Inga assists Leckenby with simple, every day tasks. She can pick up items as well as turn on and off lights. “I like having Inga there to help me,” Joseph said.

A Skilled Companion dog can help bridge social gaps for a person with a disability. According to his mother, Inga acts as an ice-breaker for Joseph. She draws people to him, because if he’s in his wheelchair people may not approach him. “But with a dog there, it kind of takes the disability out of the picture and then they see just you, a boy with a dog instead of a boy who has a disability in a wheelchair,” said Mrs. Leckenby

Joseph agreed. “I was always outgoing, but she’s definitely been a help for me.”

Inga also provides much needed companionship for Joseph. Being an only child, Joseph said he was a “little lonely.” But, Inga watches TV and even helps him with homework now. Mrs. Leckenby said, “Inga’s always there to comfort him.”

Inga, however, cannot accompany Joseph to school. Because she is a skilled companion dog, Inga requires a certified facilitator. His parents fill that role. “It’s his age,” explained Mrs. Leckenby. “Joe can’t go in public with Inga without me, and I can’t go out with Inga without Joe.

“(Inga) doesn’t work for us, she works for (Joe),” continued Mrs. Leckenby. “If she chooses not to listen to him, I have to step in and make sure it’s happening.”

What happens when Inga and Joe are out in public is infectious.

“People just love her,” Mrs. Leckenby said. “It just brings a smile to their face when they see her with him.”

The general public will get to see plenty happy faces on Oct. 5 during the Canine Companions Dogfest Walk ‘N Roll event at Peterswood Park in Venetia. The fundraiser runs 1-4 p.m. at Shelter No. 4. A mile walk, with trick-or-treat stops, begins at 2. In addition to speakers, a silent auction, food and a costume contest, Canine Companions’ graduates and volunteer puppy raisers will be on hand to answer questions.

One inquiry is expense. It costs approximately $45,000 to raise and train one assistance dog. But Canine Companions provides animals free of charge thanks in part to donations.

“Obviously, we have to raise money since the dogs are gratis,” said Jim Caprio. But the chairperson for the dogfest added, “It’s also an opportunity to raise awareness for the organization.

“Canine Companions serve two wonderful purposes. First, there is the dog’s ability to help his companion with tasks and second to help the disabled blend into society. So many more folks have been positively exposed to people such as Joseph because of pets like Inga and that’s really amazing to see.”

Those who attend DogFest will have an opportunity to meet Inga and Joseph.

“I’m excited,” Joseph said. “It’s my first year. I’ve never done this before.”

“We’re excited for it, for sure,” remarked Mrs. Leckenby. “My husband is even giving up his golf day to go.”

A dog’s lifeThe average service life of Canine Companion dog is 12 years. After that the dog is retired.

The organization retains ownership throughout the dogs’ service, but recipients of the dogs are responsible for their care, including food, vet bills, grooming and toys.

Canine Companion dogs follow a strict diet and recipients must abide by certain rules, most applying to grooming.

For example, the Leckenbys of Mt. Lebanon care for Inga, who is now 5. She is the Canine Companion for their 14-year-old son, Joseph.

Inga will retire when Joe is 21. After that he’d qualify for a service dog. According to the Leckenbys, when Inga retires she could become a pet and they have the option to either keep her or return her to Canine Companions.

“It would be hard, but I don’t know of anyone who wouldn’t keep their dog,” Julie Leckenby said. “She’s brought a lot of joy to our family.”

DogFest Walk ‘N Roll

Time: 1-4 p.m.

Day: Saturday, Oct. 5

Where: Peterswood Park, Shelter #4

Benefits: Canine Companions for Independence


Details: 412-720-8200

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