Patch the yellow lab has been on the job for just a year, but he’s already made himself indispensible, and not for the reasons you might think. Patch is a service dog for Annette Ramirez, and this past year has been transformational for both of them.
Patch has been training for this job his whole life. Canine Companions for Independence. headquartered in Santa Rosa, California, chose him when he was just 8 weeks old, sending him to a puppy raiser to learn basic social skills and command training. Canine Companions has raised and trained more than 5,000 service dogs since their founding in 1975. After 18 months, Patch was transferred to one of Canine Companions’s six regional training centers—his was located in Oceanside, California. It was there that he met Annette and her husband, during a two-week training session that pairs dogs who are ready to learn to serve with people who will be the lucky recipients of one of these very special dogs.
Getting to that training session was a long time coming. Before Patch went off to live with his puppy trainer for those 18 months—in fact, before Patch was even born— Ramirez was putting in her application to receive a service dog from CCI. An old friend suggested contacting Canine Companions, and so did her plastic surgeon. In 2014, she attended an in-person interview at the Oceanside center, meeting some of the dogs and talking with trainers. Then two long years passed. Two years that Ramirez spent coping with her new reality—she’d just been released from the hospital after spending nearly two years there, fighting to stay alive. In August 2012, during what was supposed to be a routine, laproscopic outpatient surgery, Ramirez had all four limbs amputated after contracting a life-threatening infection that nearly took her life. After the surgeon nicked her colon during surgery, sepsis set in and doctors had to use medicines called “pressers” to direct blood toward Ramirez’s major organs or she would die. These medicines not only cut off the blood flow to her limbs, resulting in the quadruple amputation, but they also burned her skin from the inside out over her entire body. The burns required that she spend four months in a medically induced coma and another 20 months undergoing intensive skin grafting and rehabilitation. After two full years in the hospital, she was finally able to go home. But life was forever changed, and it looked like creating a new normal might be a difficult road.
A busy working mom before the surgery, Annette now had to face a very different life with many new challenges. But staying strong in her faith and resolutely determined to remain positive, Annette never let herself mourn what she had lost. Through patience, prayer and lots of support from those who love her, she forged a new kind of life that accommodated her new body. Still, the stares from people on the street were hard to take, and some of the most basic tasks could now be a frustration.
Patch is there for Annette 24 hours a day, ready to help her navigate her home, the outdoors, and public places.
So, by the time Annette received the call from Canine Companions that she was approved and would finally be attending training to receive a service dog, she was beyond excited. She and her husband packed up their things and headed to Oceanside to find their forever dog and learn how to handle him. The two-week training session was intense, says Ramirez. It was as much about training the people to handle the dogs as it was about training the dogs to respond to the people.
Once approved, she was enrolled in the two-week, live-in training session, during which future service dog recipients stay in dormitories on campus and spend a full 8 hours a day training to handle dogs like Patch. There are class quizzes and even a written final, on which potential recipients are required to earn a score of 92 percent or better. The humans work with various dogs in the program, rotating through all the available dogs, while trainers and evaluators watch to see which dog is best suited to each person. After three days, the dog begins living in the dormitory with the recipient, where the new owners now learn to take care of the dogs’ needs as the dogs work to take care of theirs.
At the end of the training, Ramirez was thrilled to learn that Patch was the dog chosen to be her forever dog. After a graduation ceremony honoring the dogs, their new owners and the puppy trainers who raised them, Annette and Patch went home to start their new life together.
It was August 2016. In the year since then, Patch and Annette have forged a unique bond, one that only service dog owners and their dogs can truly understand. Patch is there for Annette 24 hours a day, ready to help her navigate her home, the outdoors, and public places. He opens doors (he pushes the automatic door button with his paw), he turns lights on and off, he picks up items from the floor, and he can even open the refrigerator.
But as Ramirez explains it, those are not the most important things Patch does for her. One of the toughest hurdles she’s had to endure is the public perception of her new body—facing the public after being holed up for two years in the hospital was tough. She knew she no longer looked like the old Annette, and she knew that her appearance sometimes alarmed people on first glance.
And that’s where Patch has given her a new confidence and greater comfort with her own physical appearance. “Now when I go out, people don’t stop and stare at me. The first thing they see is this beautiful dog, and they are immediately drawn to him. They want to see him, sometimes they want to pet him, and they often want to know how he’s helping me.” Having the focus on Patch instead of her makes Annette feel much more comfortable being out in public and meeting new people.
“I feel so blessed to have Patch,” she says.
Now Ramirez has made it her mission to inform people of the potential dangers of even routine surgeries. Her message: It can happen to anyone, so do your research, know the potential complications of any surgery so you can recognize the symptoms if you develop any of those complications. In her case, doctors did not discover the nick in the colon that was the source of her infection, and if they had, they could have treated the problem much quicker, and Annette would not have suffered so much damage and injury. Get second opinions and ask questions before you enter into a surgery. Your life could depend on it!
Canine Companions for Independence at Work
Canine Companions for Independence has been training and matching dogs to people who need them for over 40 years. And on October 1st, Canine Companions is holding its annual Haute Dog | LA, the doggy runway fashion show fundraiser, at the Skirball Cultural Center in downtown Los Angeles. People and their friendly, posh pooches are invited to strut their stuff and model outfits of their owners’ choosing, ranging from Halloween costumes to couture with everything in between. If the runway is not for you, sit back and watch as dogs take over the catwalk. This exclusive evening includes cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, a high-end fashion show, silent auction, and more.
If you’re further south, DogFest Walk ‘n Roll is headed to San Diego on October 21st. Come support the 191 active graduates and 146 volunteer puppy raisers residing in Southern California. Grab your leash and get ready to have a tail-waggin’ good time while Canine Companions changes lives, four paws at a time™.