When I spoke to Colleen Roberts (née Hayduk) on the phone, she wondered aloud why we would want to do a story on her.
“There’s nothing special about me,” she said with a laugh. But given the number of lives Roberts has changed for the better in the past two decades, many would beg to differ.
Roberts, 36, grew up showing hunters in Connecticut, and eventing was far from her first love. But in the spring of 1997, two days after graduating with a degree in equine studies and a minor in human psychology from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Roberts began a four-year stint as head groom for David O’Connor and a member of the O’Connor Event Team in The Plains, Va.
During that time, she traveled with the U.S. team to the 1998 World Equestrian Games in Italy and the 1999 Pan American Games (Canada). And she was by the O’Connors’ sides at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, where they helped the United States earn team bronze, and David clinched the individual gold.
But by the end of 2000, with those accomplishments achieved, Roberts began to look into a new challenge. “It was time to start my own business,” she said.
For the next 10 years at her Landmark Ponies LLC in Middleburg, Va., Roberts produced pony hunters that still claim wins at top-rated shows and qualify for the USEF Pony Finals and VHSA Associate Championship. Landmark Bread & Butter, who earned innumerable champion and reserve placings at top shows, was one of her most successful projects.
By the age of 30, it seemed like Roberts had everything she wanted—until one day in 2005 when she met Carina Elgin, whose daughter, Caroline (18) had a service dog from Canine Companions for Independence. That was the day Roberts’ life took on a whole new meaning.
“Since I was a child I’ve always been a crazy dog lover, but when I met Carina it all clicked for me,” she said. “We met at a vet clinic in Marshall, Va., and got to talking. She told me all about CCI. I pretty much picked up the phone straight away.”
A Real Gift
CCI is a non-profit organization founded in 1975 that trains and places service canines with individuals who have disabilities. After filling out paperwork and completing a phone interview, Roberts had her first puppy within a week.
“From the moment I met Colleen I was just amazed at her connection with animals,” said Roberts’ CCI mentor, Jan Gurtner, Oakton, Va. “She has a real gift—with dogs, horses and people.”
Roberts realized early on that the job was going to be everything she’d imagined it would be and a lot more.
“When you start puppy raising, you think it’s about the dog,” Roberts said. “Then you realize it’s more about the people that change your life.”
Nancy Lagasse, Amissville, Va., lives with multiple sclerosis and is a recipient of a CCI service dog. Although Roberts didn’t raise her companion Arkin as a puppy, Lagasse took him to Roberts’ dog obedience classes to brush up on some skills, and they’ve since bonded as close friends.
“If it wasn’t for the puppy raisers, I probably wouldn’t be here today—I wouldn’t have my dog,” said Lagasse, 61. “The puppy raisers are really the heroes of CCI. Colleen is a hero because what she does is selfless—she does this for people like me.”
As the CCI program will tell you, service dogs aren’t born—they’re raised. Many of the program’s volunteers are just as dedicated as Roberts, who’s spent the last six years training and socializing each protégé for the first 15-18 months of its life before returning the dog to CCI for further training.
Roberts teaches the puppies in her care about 30 basic commands—things like sit, stay, heel, under, over, back, up, speak, jump, shake and down.
“Every dog we’ve had pretty much masters them all. You’d be surprised what a dog can learn in a year,” said Roberts, who also works to socialize the dogs. “They just blow you away with how smart they are. We take them grocery shopping, to the movies, to dinner—we take them everywhere.”
That includes air travel too, when Roberts and her husband Richard need to visit family or take a vacation. “Not all airlines will let me take a dog onboard, but United usually does, so that’s what I fly!” she said.
CCI’s trainers produce dogs in four different categories to suit individuals with a range of disabilities. Service dogs assist people with physical disabilities (often those who use wheelchairs) and specialize in tasks like opening doors and retrieving items.
Arkin has been trained to answer the phone, pick up things his owner has dropped, take off her socks, empty the clothes in the dryer and punch handicapped buttons to open doors in public places.
“Basically he does everything for me I can’t do for myself, and that’s a lot,” said Lagasse.
Skilled companion dogs are placed with adults or children with disabilities like cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and autism, and they usually require a facilitator to care for them when the recipient is unable. Hearing dogs are specially trained to alert their deaf owners to everyday sounds like doorbells, alarm clocks or someone calling a name. And facility dogs make regular visits to schools, hospitals and rehabilitation centers to lend moral and physical support to those in need.
Just Like Ponies
CCI, whose breeding program is based in Santa Rosa, Calif., typically uses only Labrador and Golden Retrievers, or a mix of the two. These dogs tend to have the best dispositions for the work, but still, only 30 percent graduate from advanced training after leaving their puppy raiser.
“It’s hard to see them go, but you know they’re moving on to help someone in need,” said Roberts.
Emily Williams, of Santa Rose, Calif., calls herself a “midwife” to CCI breeding dogs. She receives a breeding dog only after it has completed advanced training to ensure the most intelligent and able offspring.
“Only 2 percent are pulled every year as breeders; it’s a select few,” said Williams, who’s cared for two breeding dogs that Roberts originally fostered. She currently houses Calina, a Labrador Retriever whom Roberts trained.
“She is one heck of a puppy raiser,” Williams said. “Honestly I think Colleen’s experience in pony training has really helped. Training is consistency, patience, reward and reinforcement. And having those skills underneath her belt as such a marvelous pony trainer goes directly into being a dog trainer. She’s a natural.”
Roberts agrees that training horses has carried over in her canine work.
“Training puppies is like raising a horse for a purpose. I always did the breaking and the initial groundwork on ponies, and with dogs I’m in essence doing the same,” she said.
“But puppy raising, by far, has been the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s so rewarding,” Roberts continued. Since about 99 percent of service dog recipients choose to keep in contact with their dog’s puppy raiser, she gets a steady stream of rewarding feedback.
“They’re such strong people,” she said. “They give me inspiration.”
And although she’s stepped out of the pony training business, Roberts is still an avid horsewoman. She and Richard met in the hunt field and now live in Cumberland, Va.
“It’s funny because Richard and I both work with dogs—well, dogs and hounds,” Colleen said with a laugh. “He’s the huntsman for Deep Run Hunt, so he’s a big part of my education in the hunt field. And he’s been really supportive of me raising dogs. He takes that leash and teaches them things himself.”
In May, Colleen helped with an event in Middleburg to raise awareness of the CCI program. The event alone garnered seven new puppy raisers and she hopes to help with it again in 2012. Colleen is also raising her sixth puppy, Brandy, and cares for six other dogs.
“Maturity takes patience and time,” she cautioned. “You can’t be in a rush. But it’s so worth it in the end. You feel like a proud parent; there is so much pride and joy.”