Service dogs and their clients off to parade for the first family

Among Canine Companions invitees to the inaugural parade are Kate Feerrar (center); her dog, Weber; parents Stephen and Debra (left); and sister Bethany.
Among Canine Companions invitees to the inaugural parade are Kate Feerrar (center); her dog, Weber; parents Stephen and Debra (left); and sister Bethany. (father Stephen; mother Debra (left); and sister Bethany - will be in Washington Monday.)
Posted: January 17, 2013

Kate Feerrar remembers her visit to Washington, when she was 9, as the last time she was able to climb the marble steps of museums and historic sites on her own.

Feerrar has muscular dystrophy and can no longer walk. But the 21-year-old Moorestown resident will be part of President Obama's inaugural parade on Monday and will celebrate the work of a nonprofit organization that has changed her life.

She will travel the 15 blocks in her motorized wheelchair accompanied by Weber, the dog that has become her arms, legs, and best friend.

A cross between a black Labrador retriever and golden retriever, Weber is one of thousands of dogs that have undergone advanced training by Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) for those needing assistance.

From across the nation, 135 CCI clients and their families, officials, and volunteers - along with 57 dogs - will pass before the reviewing stand to bring attention to the free service.

"I've seen [the president] on TV, but never in person," said Feerrar, a sophomore studying computer coding at ITT Tech.

"I voted for the first time in the last election, so it's exciting to see the one I voted for," she said, adding that Obama is "an inspiration to me."

CCI is one of several dozen organizations and groups chosen to join the parade, said Debra Dougherty, executive director of the nonprofit's Northeast region office in Medford, N.Y. It will have a small float: an inflated dog attached to a trailer.

About 2,800 groups applied to take part in the event, which celebrates the electoral process and places participants in the national spotlight. Others that made the cut are Boy Scout Troop 358 from Grace Baptist Church in Germantown and the Jackson (N.J.) Memorial High School Jaguar Band.

"We were thrilled when we got the e-mail and phone call letting us know that we had been selected," Dougherty said. "It's a big honor."

CCI, with headquarters in Santa Rosa, Calif., trains about 250 dogs a year, Dougherty said. The organization breeds black Labs, golden retrievers, and Lab-golden mixes, animals shown to have the appropriate personality and temperament.

Over 38 years, about 4,000 have been trained - including 1,700 now serving children and adults, Dougherty said. The puppies are raised over 18 months by volunteers who teach them 30 basic commands and behaviors.

The dogs then are transferred to a CCI facility with professional instructors, a boot camp where they spend six to nine months learning more than 60 additional commands. Six out of 10 don't make the grade and are adopted by families.

Those that pass assist their masters by switching on lights, retrieving dropped objects, even getting food and drink from a refrigerator and helping with socks.

This week, CCI volunteer Liesl Townsend picked up puppy No. 6. She has raised five over seven years.

The Mount Holly resident and medical administrator, who runs a surgical practice, was hooked after attending a 2005 Long Island ceremony where dogs and their owners graduated from two weeks of training.

"I cried for an hour and half," said Townsend, 43. "I heard the mother of an autistic child say, 'You will never understand what you have done for us.' . . . You don't know the difference the dogs have made."

Townsend's trainee dog, Rango, will head to advanced training Feb. 15, but not before joining her in the inaugural parade.

Another CCI volunteer, Marietta Hanigan, 52, of Haddonfield, and her dog, Tyrone, also will participate in the event - an appearance highly anticipated by students and staff at Haddonfield Friends School, where Hanigan teaches first grade.

As part of his training, Tyrone has accompanied Hanigan to school every day to get used to children and has become a beloved mascot. The yellow Labrador-golden retriever cross stays in a pen in the classroom, where students often pet him.

"The kids are excited to know the dog - their dog - will be there and the president wants him there," Hanigan said. "It brings real history to life - the idea that they have this very real connection to the president and Washington."

The first dog Hanigan trained - a black Lab named Hope that also went to school with her - was placed with a 9-year-old with Down syndrome. Hanigan's students wrote to the boy's family in Massachusetts to find out how Hope was helping and where she slept.

"The mother wrote back that the dog was sleeping on the boy, so she got another bed for [Hope] so she could sleep next to him," Hanigan said. "Every night, she said, she turns off the light and hears [the boy] tell Hope that he loves her."

In Moorestown, the Feerrar family feels the same way about 10-year-old Weber.

"He's devoted to Kate, a real blessing," said her father, Stephen, 60, an energy-management consultant, who will accompany Kate; Weber; his wife, Debra; and daughter Bethany in the parade. "I grew up with dogs, and he's the epitome of what you want."

Added Kate Feerrar: "He's the best dog ever."

Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or