Excelsior art teacher Colee Rylant is changing human lives — one dog at a time.
Rylant trains puppies for people in need, which could be for someone with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a deaf person, or for a wheelchair-bound person who can’t open doors.
Kimba, who was the first dog Rylant trained, didn’t qualify to help someone in need because of a health issue. Kimba was returned to Rylant and has become the family’s pet. However, with Kimba’s help, Rylant continues to train new puppies.
As a result, Kimba is making a difference for a future owner with disabilities as she helps to show Payton — Rylant’s new puppy-in-training — the ropes.
Rylant trains puppies for children and adults with physical disabilities through the non-profit national program called Canine Companions for Independence. CCI’s motto is “Raise a Puppy, Change a life.”
“I think they mean you are changing the person with the disability’s life, but really, you are changing your own life,” Rylant said.
Around 5,200 dogs have been placed since opening in 1975, according to cci.org. The average number CCI places each year is from 300-350 dogs per year. But last year the non-profit had a record number of 366 puppies placed to assist people in need.
Rylant said her first exposure to CCI service dogs was in 2014, when she was at the Mr. and Miss Amazing Pageant at Tooele High School. When the people sitting next to her stood up, Rylant noticed they had a 75-pound lab pup. She became curious about the dog and asked a few questions.
And she liked what she heard, especially the part about CCI gives the puppy away for free to the disabled owner. The dog would normally cost someone $50,000. Rylant said she had long wanted to serve her community, but that she wasn’t sure how or where to offer her talents.
“I’m a teacher and don’t make a ton of money, but I wanted to give back,” she said. “I thought raising a service dog would be a good project.”
The first step to becoming a puppy raiser with CCI is to fill out the application. Once the application is processed, the next step is to undergo a phone interview. Lastly, the organization does a house visit, where an inspector determines if the house is suitable for a dog, and ensures that the owner’s yard is fenced in.
In July 2014, Rylant received her first puppy, Kimba, who is a golden-crossed lab. Kimba flew from Santa Rosa, California to Salt Lake International Airport in a crate.
“They arrive and your adventure begins,” Rylant said.
She explained that volunteer trainers do everything, such as pay for food, medical and training. What is done and paid for to raise a puppy, is donated to CCI.
Puppies stay between 14-18 months with the volunteers. After Kimba was trained, Rylant returned her to Oceanside, California, to graduate from the CCI program. For graduation, puppies wear caps and gowns and the volunteers turn them over to a CCI worker who prepares to have the puppy placed.
After graduation, the puppies are given multiple health exams, during which Kimba was diagnosed with hip dysplasia. But fortunately for Rylant, CCI returned Kimba to live with her indefinitely.
As soon as a puppy is trained, another puppy can be taken in to train in the home. The first few months are the toughest, Rylant said, with potty training. Since Rylant is a teacher, she prefers to get her new puppies during summer break.
Kimba was two when Payton arrived in July 2016. Rylant said that Kimba got busy showing Payton what to do when she gave her commands. Kimba helped Payton learn to be a dog.
For five to six months the puppies are always on a leash. This trains the dog to have someone pull on them. While outdoors, the dog also continues to be on the leash for safety reasons.
Rylant has taken Payton to her son’s hockey games, shopping at Kohl’s, Home Depot and on other errands.
“You get this amazing dog and when you go out in public, they do amazing things,” Rylant said.
CCI uses labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and crosses of the two breeds.
“It has not always been these breeds, but they found these dogs work the best,” Rylant said. “They’re trainable, smart, not too big and fit under airplane seats, chairs at church and Payton can get under a hockey bench.”
Every dog in the program has a specific diet. Payton is not allowed treats, and is rewarded with extra food or ice cubes. Rawhide toys or squeaky toys are not allowed as they may cause her to choke.
Raising a puppy is not just a one-person job. Rylant’s children have also helped her with the responsibility of taking care of Kimba and Payton.
“It’s a good family-bonding activity. It’s good for kids, and it’s good for adults,” she said. “You definitely get everything you put into it.”
Rylant is the only CCI puppy trainer in Tooele County, but she would love to help anyone interested to get started.
“We could have puppy raising classes and maybe even have our own chapter,” she said. Currently, the closest chapter is in Ogden.
A couple days a year, Rylant meets with other CCI trainers in Utah for social gatherings. At Christmas, they get together for a party with their dogs.
CCI trains four types of assistance dogs: hearing dogs for those who are hard of hearing or deaf; facility dogs who help professionals in a visitation, education or healthcare setting; skilled companions who help children and adults with physical, cognitive and developmental disabilities; and service dogs that assist with performing daily tasks.
Rylant doesn’t know what kind of service dog Payton will become.
“Payton could even end up as a breeding dog and have four to five litters of puppies,” Rylant said.
Payton was first trained to go to the bathroom, then to sit, speak and roll. She now knows 20 different commands. She even has learned to pick up things as small as a dime.
When asked what Rylant wanted others to know about service dogs, she said people need to be aware that when a dog is wearing a yellow vest, it means the dog is a service animal at work.
“People always want to pet your dog or make kissing sounds,” Rylant said. “Don’t ask to pet it. They are working for someone who needs help.”
Rylant also said she would encourage people to look into training puppies.
“Tooele is a really giving community,” she said. “Somebody sees a need and people rush to fill that need. There are people in the community who would benefit from this.”
Raising two puppies for CCI, Rylant has achieved what she started out to do — give back to her community.
“It’s life changing. It’s amazing and rewarding,” she said. “Once you see people who need these dogs, who are out in public getting their errands done, you have a different view on their world.”