Service dogs and handlers will march at inaugural

After the public swearing-in of President Barack Obama Monday, thousands of people will line a 2.5 kilometer route through downtown Washington to enjoy the inaugural parade. Besides bands and dance troupes, some four-legged marchers will also take part.

Caroline Elgin in The Plains, Virginia, got her service dog, Sajen, when she was almost 10 years old. Ms. Elgin has cerebral palsy, which has affected her speech and motor skills, but not her intelligence. Now 19, she says Sajen makes her happy.

Sajen knows more than 60 commands and helps Ms. Elgin by picking up items and giving them to her, pulling off her socks, and retrieving his leash. He can also shut a door.

Ms. Elgin’s mother, Carina, says Sajen has given her daughter more confidence.

“Since Caroline has had Sajen, her personality has really been able to blossom. She was very shy. But once she got the dog she was proud to have him sitting next to her and more comfortable going into public settings, and it’s just really changed her life completely I think,” she said.

Caroline Elgin says people are more at ease approaching her when Sajen is next to her.

In nearby Middleburg, Virginia, 11-year-old Bobby Slater is teaching basic commands to Shiloh, in hopes she will become a service dog to help people like Ms. Elgin. These dogs are especially bred and trained by Canine Companions for Independence, a non-profit group that provides service dogs to people with disabilities for free. When they are two months old, they are sent to live with volunteer puppy raisers, like Slater.

He brings Shiloh to school to teach her socialization skills. “When I tell her to sit, she’ll sit halfway and see if you’ll give her a treat, but I tell her to sit all the way, and then she’ll sit,” he said.

When puppies are a year and a half, they leave the volunteers for advanced training at the organization’s regional centers. Only 40 percent pass and become service dogs. The rest are often adopted by their puppy raisers.

Bobby Slater’s older sister, Meg Ann, has also trained puppies. “It’s really hard knowing you have to give them up, but it’s also great knowing that they’re going to go and change someone’s life and make their life a lot easier,” she said.

Her brother and Shiloh will be in the inaugural parade.

It is an experience that will be shared by Caroline Elgin and Sajen, and 135 other people and 50 dogs.

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