Puppy training to be service dog becomes fixture at winery

06/29/2017 6:05 AM |

Giovanni Borghese is hosting a four-legged guest in his home for the next 18 months — a service puppy named Herbaceous.

Mr. Borghese is taking part in Canine Companions for Independence, a national organization that trains service dogs for those with disabilities.

“He melts your heart,” Mr. Borghese said. “If I’m taking him for a walk down in Greenport, I can’t go more than two feet without getting completely mauled by everyone.”

CCI has six regional training centers around the country, with the Northeast Regional Center in Medford. Service dogs are provided to those with disabilities who are looking to gain more independence in life, at no cost to the recipient.

Herbaceous, named after a wine tasting term, of course, spends most of his days running around Castello di Borghese Vineyard in Cutchogue, the oldest vineyard on Long Island. But it’s not all fun and games.

As a volunteer puppy raiser, Mr. Borghese is in charge of preparing Herbaceous to be a service dog in the future, and one of the most significant parts of this is socializing him. He needs to be prepared for all types of situations and have good manners around people.

Every other Monday, Borghese takes Herbie — the dog’s nickname — to special classes with other service puppies, fills out monthly progress reports and ensures that the dog follows a strict diet outlined by CCI.

“There’s enough support and ongoing involvement with the organization that you don’t feel like you’ve been left alone with this puppy for 18 months,” Mr. Borghese said. “There’s really a routine, week in and week out. It’s been mutually beneficial.”

Gio and Herby at the winery last week. (Credit: Rachel Siford)

Graduate program manager Lauren Ferraioli said that puppy raisers need to acclimate the dog into a social life, and make them accustomed to being around large crowds, because service dogs can go places personal pets cannot, like malls or amusement parks.

“We rely on our puppy raisers to raise them from 8 weeks to 18 to 24 months of age,” Ms. Ferraioli said. “It’s a huge portion of their lives, and a huge responsibility in developing the dogs.”

Socializing Herbaceous is an important task, but made easier at the vineyard where he is constantly surrounded by different people.

“One of my missions as a puppy raiser is to really make sure that he’s not skittish or sensitive to loud noises or big groups,” Mr. Borghese said. “So it’s a great opportunity here to be able to do that.”

Mr. Borghese described Herbie as “a handful,” but when he puts Herbie’s yellow cape on, the dog knows it’s business time and is a completely different dog.

“They can sense positive and negative energy,” Mr. Borghese said. “I really think they have an instinct to lift moods and lift spirits.”

After the 18 months of training is up, Mr. Borghese must return Herbaceous to CCI to partake in the next level of training. Here, the puppies go through a six-month program with professional trainers. The dogs are taught over 40 advanced commands that are useful to those with disabilities, and during this time, the dogs are being evaluated. Only about 40 percent of dogs pass this level due to the high standards the organization has.

Herbaceous in his service cape. (Credit: Rachel Siford)

There is a year-and-a-half waiting list to get a service dog.

“This is why puppy raising is so important to us,” John Bentzinger, public relations coordinator for CCI, said in an email. “The more puppies that are being raised, the more people we can serve.”

Mr. Borghese said he went into this knowing that he will eventually give up Herbaceous, but he knows it’s for a great cause.

“I’m emotionally prepared as you can be, but it’s such a phenomenal organization for such a wonderful cause,” he said. “It certainly helps soften the blow knowing he’s going to do great things moving on.”

However, if Herbaceous does not pass the second phase of training, Mr. Borghese will have the option to keep him.

And he knows that raising a service dog is not the same as having a personal pet.

“You’re kind of on a mission and you’re not having the dog adapt to your lifestyle, you’re really putting the dog first when you’re working with Canines Companions for Independence,” Mr. Borghese said. “Everything is in the dog’s best interest.”

There are currently 196 active puppy raisers in the Northeast region and 1,252 raisers nationally. “It is the ultimate volunteer experience,” Ms. Ferraioli added.
Herbie is very popular at the vineyard.

“The number one question when a customer walks in the door is where’s Herbaceous?” Mr. Borghese laughed. “If he’s not here, I’m in a lot of trouble.”

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