By Gabe Licht
MAPLE PLAIN, MN Vader, Valor, Vaughn, Vegas, Venus, Victor, Vida, Vinny, and Vixen.
Those nine puppies came into the world before sunrise Oct. 20 in the living room of Dana Kittok’s rural Maple Plain home. They left the home six weeks later, heading to Federal Prison Camp, Duluth for the next chapter in their lives as Can Do Canines in training.
Before the puppies
“My husband Pete always said this was a one-pet house,” Kittok said. “We had one black Lab, TKO, for 16 years, and he was fantastic. I had a Siamese cat as a kid and wanted another one. When TKO passed away, we got Torii, but cats just aren’t dogs. I needed that dog fix.”
So Kittok began looking into organizations that would bring dogs into her home on a short-term basis and ultimately applied to be a volunteer with New Hope-based Can Do Canines.
We latched onto this program because they don’t charge for their service dogs,” Kittok said.
She first joined the volunteer ranks of Can Do Canines by providing a foster home for dogs in the program. Foster homes allow dogs to socialize with new people, whether they’re an assistance dog candidate from an animal shelter or they’re being raised in a prison or by another volunteer.
“We need them to be socialized to the outside world, sounds, and anything they’ll be dealing with in society,” Can Do Canines spokesman Paul Schwarzkopf said. “Foster parents take the dogs out to dinner, movies, etc., so when we get them into training, they can do their skills in any situation.”
The Kittoks fostered a poodle, chocolate Lab, and yellow Lab before welcoming a black Lab named Keetah into their home. Unlike the previous three dogs, Keetah was not being trained as a service dog, but rather would be giving birth to a litter of them.
“When I asked Pete if he was interested in doing this, he said, ‘I’m hunting, so it’s on you,’” Kittok said. “That worked out well for us because I was able to be busy while he was gone.”
Kittok learned exactly what she was getting herself into when an X-ray showed how many puppies were on the way.
“That was kind of neat because, in the private world, you probably wouldn’t pay for an X-ray to find out how many you’re getting,” Kittok said.
Here come the puppies
When Keetah gave birth to eight black Labs, and one chocolate Lab, Kittok was ready.
“About 20 years ago, we had a litter of Springer Spaniels, so that wasn’t foreign to me,” Kittok said.
It didn’t hurt that she had recruited her 19-year-old son, Bryce, to help.
“He was just tickled pink,” Kittok said of Bryce. “Not very many people get to experience it, so it was fun to share it. I asked if he was interested and he said sure. She started delivering at 5:37 a.m. and he was up and right in the whelping box scooping them up.”
During the delivery, the Kittoks assisted Keetah with the umbilical cord and cleaned up the puppies.
“At birth, when their ears come out, there’s no fur on them, so they look like beaver tails,” Kittok said.
Each dog was assigned a different color ribbon for identification purposes and each was weighed for the first of many times.
“For the first three weeks, we had to weigh them twice a day to make sure they were growing as they should,” Kittok said.
At each meal, the lightest of the litter would get one-on-one or one-on-two time with their mommy to level the playing field for any would-be runts.
Cleanup was Keetah’s job until Kittok began feeding the puppies dog food after three weeks. Two other milestones came at that three-week mark.
“At three weeks, we had to put 0-3 month onesies on them so they could get used to their service capes,” Kittok said. “It’s cute. They remind me of Curious George in their little onesies.”
Others were able to experience that cuteness in person for the first time, as well.
Guests were asked to change their clothes if they had been at a dog park and also had to remove their shoes and wash their hands.
“It’s like coming to see an infant,” Kittok said.
Having contact with different people is important for service dogs. For that reason, Kittok invited friends and family members of all ages and even opened her home up to strangers with ties to Can Do Canines. The latter, while awkward at first, allowed her to learn more about the organization and acquainted the puppies with others, as well.
“You want them to not be afraid of different people,” Kittok said. “One of the gals said she had taken her lab into a grocery store, and turned a corner, and saw a Muslim dressed in all her garb. The dog freaked out, the woman freaked out, and it wasn’t the best scene. That’s why they want you to get used to as many different people as you can.”
While the puppies interacted with humans, they had not interacted with other dogs until after the vet visited to vaccinate them and microchip them in case they get lost.
The puppies’ impact
When asked what she liked about helping to whelp the litter, Kittok simply responded, “Just the cuteness. They look to you for snuggle sessions.”
“Everybody asks, ‘How can you give up these puppies?’” Kittok continued. “You know going in you’re doing it for somebody else. To know you’re going to give somebody their independence, I think that’s the selling point.”
In Kittok’s case, the puppies she helped whelp are already making a difference, as relayed by a note she received.
“Babies and mama were an expected hit when they arrived at the prison. As I opened the van door and a crate with three puppies was revealed, one of the inmates looked at the puppies and said, ‘I’m a 64-year-old man and am about to cry,’” Kittok read, tearing up herself. “Watching these guys carry these puppies and talking baby talk to them was great to see. Thank you for giving them such a wonderful start.”
Kittok is looking forward to the future of the “V” litter as well. Once they are trained and successfully matched with a human partner, they will officially graduate from the program and Kittok plans to be there to see it.
“To see them at the graduation podium and know they’ve completed the program, and that I’ve been a part of that, will probably be the icing on the cake,” Kittok said.
About the organization
Can Do Canines is in its 25th year of service, with more than 450 assistance dogs certified since its inception.
Five different types of assistance dogs are available.
Hearing assist dogs alert their owners, who are deaf or hard of hearing, to sounds such as a microwave chime, alarm or doorbell.
Mobility assist dogs can brace and help a person walk, retrieve items, pull wheelchairs, open doors, and get help in an emergency.
Diabetes assist dogs can smell a person’s breath and alert them when their blood sugar is high, low, or when they need to test their blood sugar. They can also fetch supplies to help prevent their human partner from going into diabetic shock.
Autism assist dogs help keep autistic children safe and calm in public settings.
“Autism assist dogs have become really popular,” Schwarzkopf said. “Autistic children tend to bolt when in public. The autism assist dog is tethered to the client. If the child starts to bolt, the dog holds him or her in place. We’ve found the dog helps them navigate social situations better.”
Seizure assist dogs respond to a person having a seizure by licking their face, retrieving an emergency phone and alerting others.
In order to provide these assistance dogs which come with a price tag of about $25,000 each at no cost, Can Do Canines relies on volunteers and donations from individuals and civic groups, such as the Delano Lions, as well as community level grants.
Volunteers are also vital to the success of the organization.
“We rely heavily on volunteers,” Schwarzkopf said. “We have about 300 active volunteers at any given time.”
Volunteers can help with breeding, whelping, raising puppies, fostering puppies, assisting clients, fundraising and providing administrative support or other specialist skills, such as sign language interpreting, carpentry, and plumbing.
To learn more about donor and volunteer opportunities, follow the link at www.delanoheraldjournal.com.