Krista Kyle, a Mansfield mom of four, has added a new member to her family — temporarily.
She, her husband Stuart and their children — Lexy, 9, Tyler, 7, and twins Anna and Jake, 4 — are raising Fenway, a puppy who will eventually become a Canine Companions for Independence service dog.
CCI is the largest nonprofit provider of trained assistance dogs in the United States, breeding Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and crosses of the breeds. The puppies go through a multi-step program to become service dogs and are ultimately matched with a child, adult or veteran with disabilities.
Kyle, 36, first heard of the organization 10 years ago.
“In college, I was training dogs out of Maryland with a smaller organization that was modeled after CCI,” she said in a phone interview. “So I always knew about it...and when we decided to get into it, (CCI) was my first thought.”
Deciding to be a volunteer “puppy raiser,” Kyle filled out an online application last June, describing her home, family and experience with dog training.
Fenway was born Aug. 20 and it wasn’t long before the black Lab made his way to the Kyles.
On Oct. 22, Kyle and her daughter Alexis traveled to Long Island where they attended an orientation, took tours of the facility and finally met Fenway.
“One of the trainers had Fenway and another puppy, one under each arm... and he was a little black butterball of sweetness,” laughed Kyle. “My daughter was ecstatic.”
Fenway went home to Mansfield, where he’ll live with the Kyles for a year and a half alongside their dog Brooklyn. According to Kyle, the two get along and it helps with Fenway’s training.
Kyle described Fenway as a “dream puppy” — calm, bright and very nice. Their main job as puppy raisers is to provide socialization and basic training.
“The most important thing we can give to CCI is a well-adjusted dog,” Kyle said. “We love dogs, the companionship is great. I love the training because it’s all positive reinforcement... it’s so satisfying to see the progress.”
Exposing Fenway to different environments is a vital part of his time with Kyle and her family. Feeling different surfaces, experiencing new smells and meeting other people and dogs will all contribute to his development as a service animal.
Fenway is one of more than 1,300 puppies currently being raised through CCI nationwide and someday he’ll be among over 2,300 graduates.
CCI trains four types of dogs — service, hearing, facility and skilled. According to Kyle, Labs and goldens are the perfect breeds for the program.
“They’re programmed to work closely with people,” she said. “They want to be next to you. They (also) love to bring you things, so being a service dog, they’ll be retrieving things all the time.”
After Fenway leaves the Kyles’ house, he will be brought to one of six training centers across the United States and undergo professional training. There, the dogs master over 40 commands in six to nine months.
The commands include pulling wheelchairs, opening and closing doors and more. After this step, dogs are matched with their new owner and the two learn how to work together.
Kyle involved her kids with the decision to raise a puppy that wasn’t theirs to keep. She told them they would be the first step in a bigger and better life for someone getting a CCI dog. Fenway is scheduled to bid farewell to the Kyles in May of 2020.
“The kids were really on-board and they understand he’s not ours...they’re really proud of him. I think they’ll be okay,” Kyle said.
All this starts with puppy raisers like the Kyle family and lead dogs like Fenway to an owner whose life will be changed.
“It feels important,” Kyle said. “And it feels relevant to a greater community that matters. You love them, but you go into it knowing he’s not ours. We’re proud of him.”