If you’re ever visiting New Hope, MN northwest of Minneapolis, you may pass by what appears to be an outsized doggie daycare for Labrador and Golden Retrievers. But those happy pups aren’t pets, they’re skilled working dogs, training to assist clients with mobility challenges, hearing loss or deafness, seizure disorders, diabetes complicated by hypoglycemia unawareness, or children on the autism spectrum.

Since 1989, nonprofit Can Do Canines has trained and placed hundreds of assistance dogs free of charge. The fourteen-member board of directors and staff of forty-three rely on an incredible 800 active volunteers to breed, wean, raise, socialize, and train the dogs before they go to their new homes. The process takes an average of about two and a half years for each dog.  

“We ask our volunteers to do so much,” explains Can Do Canines Executive Director Jeff Johnson. “They raise dogs and then give them back, which, to me, is extremely difficult. And they do it over and over again. Our amazing volunteers are the heart of our organization.”

“One of the hardest parts of the job is not getting on the floor and playing with all these dogs every day.”

Jeff Johnson, Can Do Canines Executive Director

The process starts with breeding. Most of the assistance dogs come from Can Do Canines’ own breeding program, although a few carefully selected rescue dogs are also trained each year. Volunteer breeding hosts provide homes to pregnant dogs that live with them until they’re ready to deliver. Before the mother dogs give birth, they’re moved to the homes of whelping volunteers who help deliver the puppies. A breeding coordinator is always available via video in case there are questions or concerns. Whelping volunteers keep the puppies and the mom for five weeks — a substantial commitment. 

The weaning process begins what may be the most interesting part of the dogs’ journey. The mother and the puppies move into a prison, where specially chosen pairs of cellmates help wean them for several weeks. Can Do Canines operates in seven men’s and women’s prisons in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Once the pups are weaned, the mother returns to her breeding host and the puppies either move to a volunteer home or stay in the prison for a year of training. 

“This program is just so amazing,” says Johnson. “A lot of inmates have long stretches of free time, so their entire focus is on this puppy. We provide very detailed training manuals and training sessions. They’re able to spend significant amounts of time working with the dogs around the clock.” Prison staff and wardens are also enthusiastic about the program. They say the dogs help cultivate patience, responsibility, and a calmer atmosphere among the participating inmates. 

One of Johnson’s favorite success stories took place at a local Target. “One of our clients was approached by a woman who asked her dog’s name. When our client told her the name, the woman began to cry and said she had raised this dog as a puppy when she was an inmate in one of our prison programs. The former puppy raiser said that this dog taught her more than any human being ever had. She credits the dog with her ability to reintegrate and succeed since being released from prison.”

Although the structure of prison is great for obedience training, the dogs also need significant socialization. Can Do Canines’ Prison Break Fosters and Weekend Prison Sitters help socialize them with experiences or outings they don’t get in the prison environment. Johnson explains, “We need dogs that are able to react to everything under the sun and not get excited. They need to experience kids, cats, trips to Target or church — it’s important that they’re exposed to these things in their formative first year.”

Once they leave the prison or volunteer home, the dogs finish training at Can Do Canines, working with professional trainers for several months. The trainers determine whether they’re ready to be ADA-compliant assistance dogs, or if they’d be better suited as pets or some other role. These career-changed dogs may have allergies, congenital issues, or orthopedic concerns that would interfere with their ability to work or prove too costly for clients to manage. Most are placed with the volunteer who raised them; the rest are offered for adoption.

Can Do Canines’ mission is to enhance the quality of life for people with disabilities, but that can never happen at the expense of the dogs. For that reason, the application process for an assistance dog is very rigorous. It includes in-person, on-site interviews and conversations with personal references. Staff members work diligently to ensure that clients are able to keep the dogs happy and healthy and that they understand the unique challenges of welcoming an assistance dog into their homes. Johnson says that saying no to a prospective client is one of the toughest parts of his job. 

The organization has five separate waiting lists for clients, the longest wait by far — for autistic children — is three or four years. That’s due in part to the fact that not just any dog can be trained to work with children with autism. They must have the right personality. A primary job of these dogs is to remain tethered to the child to prevent them from running away in public. But they must also be able to remain calm amidst unpredictable physical and emotional behaviors. 

Johnson says that for many families, the impact of an assistance dog is nothing short of remarkable. “I’ve been involved in a lot of nonprofits, but this one is different because we’re creating long-term relationships. This person becomes the most important thing in this dog’s life for eight to ten years, and this dog becomes the most important thing in this person’s life. They’re there 24 hours a day, even on really bad days. Parents tell us that assistance dogs are able to calm their kids in ways no adult can. Some of it is a little bit of magic, I think. Dogs were just created that way; they give us unconditional love. It’s transformational.”

About Can Do Canines

Can Do Canines’ mission is to enhance the quality of life for people with disabilities by creating mutually beneficial partnerships with specially trained dogs. We are the largest provider of assistance dogs in Minnesota and one of only two Minnesota-based assistance dog organizations that is an accredited member of Assistance Dogs International.