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Positively San Diego: Local group provides special dogs for those in need

Posted at 6:29 AM, Mar 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-22 09:29:03-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- Rarely is it more clear how dogs are man's best friend than when a service dog provides the help someone needs.

Eleven-year-old Emme loves a friendly game of chase the way most kids and dogs do. The difference, in this case, is her pup is not like most dogs.

Tillman, a calm and lovable 5-year-old golden retriever, is a specially trained service dog from Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a nonprofit with a center in Oceanside.

Emme's mom, Kristina Lester, said Tillman came into their lives three years ago.

“He's really bonded to Emme and he's really sensitive to her moods and emotions and he knows when he can play and roughhouse and when it's time to just settle down and cuddle," Lester said.

Emme has Down syndrome, autism, and Type 1 diabetes, and Lester said Tillman has made an enormous difference in her daughter's life.

“Emme was essentially non-verbal,” Lester said. “I really credit Tillman for her speech because she talks so much about him and she loves to give him commands and stuff.”

CCI Public Relations and Marketing Manager Stacy Haynes said they knew right away that Tillman would pair well with a child. For dogs like Tillman to be ready, Haynes said it takes two years.

“The work of a service dog starts as soon as they're born, in kind of learning how to be around different surfaces and they start learning their name right away," said Haynes.

At eight weeks, the dogs go to live with volunteer puppy raisers to be loved, observed, and learn basic commands. Then, at a year and a half, the advanced work begins with certified instructors back at the training center. Recipient families then spend two weeks training with their dogs before taking them home.

“Really over those two weeks, you see the bonding going on and you see how they become attached to their dog instantly," Haynes told ABC 10News.

Since 1975, CCI has placed more than 6,500 dogs, and each one of them is as unique as Tillman is.

Lester said Tillman has been especially invaluable for Emme during this tough time.

“The pandemic's been really hard for her and Tillman has just been that one constant for her. He's her best friend," said Lester.

Whether it's comforting Emme during medical appointments or catching a ball during playtime, Tillman and CCI will forever be part of this family.

“I'm just so grateful. Thank you could never, it could never be enough,” Lester said as Emme gave Tillman a hug and a kiss.

The dogs are born at the Canine Companions headquarters in Santa Rosa and go to six training centers around the country, including in Oceanside. Donations make it possible to provide these amazing dogs free of charge. If you'd like to know more about applying for one of these service dogs, volunteering or making a donation, visit