by Mimi Montgomery
photograph by Travis Long
“If I could have 12 dogs, I would.”– Monica Laliberte, WRAL 5 on Your Side reporter and Canine Companions for Independence volunteer
You probably know Monica Laliberte as the face of WRAL’s 5 On Your Side, fighting for the rights of consumers. Fewer know that when she’s off duty, Laliberte fights for another cause: the rights of people with disabilities to live independent lives. For the past 11 years, she has been a volunteer trainer for Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit that provides assistance dogs.
In her early reporting days, Laliberte covered a piece on assistance dogs and was instantly intrigued. “I thought this was a great thing that my whole family could be a part of that was charitable,” she says. They tried it and were hooked – her family recently started training their seventh puppy.
Each Canine Companion volunteer undergoes a rigid screening process and is educated on how to properly train an assistance dog. Then they receive a puppy from the organization’s California headquarters (usually either a golden retriever, labrador, or a mix) and train it for 18 to 20 months on socialization, commands, and manners. Once the puppy graduates, it’s sent “off to college,” as Laliberte puts it, where the dog works with professional trainers for six to 10 months on everything from how to open and close drawers to how to retrieve things out of the fridge. It’s an intense process. “These dogs pretty much have to be perfect,” she says.
Of course, each dog’s graduation comes with a bit of heartache. “We cry our eyes out every time,” she says. “It’s kind of like giving up a child.” But she knows each puppy will go on to serve a huge purpose. “I think it’s so fulfilling…to see how these dogs change people’s lives. How they not only just help people to function in everyday life (but also) the social interaction that that dog can provide people – it’s just huge.”