Tuesday, November 15, 2016

No Holds Barred: The perfect antidote

My "Valley of the Dolls" moment!
by Blair Sabol

I started having serious chest pains and nausea as of Halloween.  I had been to the ER and saw my doctor at least three times, when he finally diagnosed me with “classic election-itis” — otherwise known as “political panic attacks.”  It wasn’t just about the specific candidates; it was the whole electoral process of daily WikiLeaks dumps and media mania.  He said I had emotional “porous borders” and got affected by everything.  Who hasn’t been this last 6 months?  Then he suggested I get to “higher ground” — a remote location for November 8th and “chill.”

Luckily, I was on my way to Laguna California to celebrate the Canine Companions Veterans Initiative (on Veterans Day Weekend), a non-profit organization that “enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure the finest partnership” (go to CCI.org or call 1-800-752-BARK).
I decided to check into the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel (which was sponsoring the Diamond Ball event for the Veterans, their dogs and all of the partners and supporters) on Election Day and have my melt down early. 
Don't jump!
I was ready to jump off my balcony into the ocean or at least OD Anna Nicole Smith-style on all my anti anxiety medication (my doctor did advise me that marijuana would probably become legal in California in November so I could always turn to an “edible” from somewhere immediately).
My demise had nothing to do with election night results — I wanted to take matters into my own hands ASAP if needed.  I also love the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel — it’s a perfect setting to come to for a fitting end ... of some kind.

I had dinner on Nov. 8th with dear pal writer/editor Stephen Drucker and popular Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel GM Bruce Brainerd.  Both of them kept their cell phones in front of them the whole time.  Remember, the West Coast has the benefit of being three hours behind — so our “Finale” was at dessert, and not 2 AM.

Like everyone else, the shock and awe and “What-the-Fuck-just-Happened” result was so overwhelming that I had no time to OD or jump.
Brainerd walked me to the elevator, took a deep breath, and said, “One day at a time.”  At least I think that is what he said.  I ended up not being dramatic, but passing out on my own energy.

The next morning I ran to the ocean rather than jumping off my balcony.  The feel of the ocean reminded me that everything would all be okay — a wave of acceptance and relief came over me as I watched a group of surfers tackle the waves with that “keep calm and carry on” determination and elegance. After all, the ocean heals all.
It will all be fine!
My heart fluttering settled down as I noticed the Canine Companions for Independence Training Puppies arriving at the shoreline.  This event seemed the perfect antidote to the high-wired emotional roller coaster of the night before.  The storyline went from historic down-and-dirty mud slinging campaigns to life saving happy endings between war heroes and man’s best friend. 
CCI training dogs social mixer at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel.
There are many therapy dog organizations, but CCI was founded in 1975 and provides a breeding program as well as volunteer “puppy raisers” across the nation for socializing and obedience training.  Between the ages of 15-18 months the puppies return to one of five CCI regional training centers across the country for six months of serious training.  There are Service Dogs, Skilled Companions, Hearing Dogs and Facility Dogs.  Finally the dogs are paired with a “graduate” for 2 weeks of required “team training.”

It costs $50,000 per dog from puppy obedience to training to placement — all non-profit.  The dogs pick up dropped keys, open doors, pull their partners in a manual wheelchair, push buttons for elevators and doors, even assist in transferring money, receipts and packages. Not to mention, they provide the social support needed for people with disabilities.  When I read and understood that, I decided I would prefer a service dog to a husband. Who wouldn’t?!
I always thought “therapy dogs” were just seeing-eye dogs for the blind.  We have come a long way from that concept.  I also thought a “therapy dog” license could be gotten by anybody who had a Chihuahua and $25,000 to spend on some phony certificate to prove you must fly with your dog or you would die.  These days, that’s getting harder and harder to pull off. 

A CCI dog is trained for 2-3 years, and not all the dogs (which are only Labradors or Golden Retrievers) make the cut.  Some get to the end and for various reasons, are “released” for adoption to find a “change of career.” When a trained therapy dog reaches eight years, they are “retired.” The expected level of performance for these talented animals is impressive.

Speaking of talented animals, there is another fabulous working dog program called Mission K9, whose purpose is to rescue, reunite, re-home, rehabilitate and repair any retired working dog that has served in the Military in some capacity.  Talk about Man’s Best Friend! (missionk9rescue.org)
Diamond Ball place settings.
Color Guard at the CCI Ball.
At the CCI event, I met the volunteer puppy trainers — like Sondra Thiederman with her pup Magill. She has been a “puppy trainer” many times — “It takes over your life and I don’t feel such a bonding that I want to keep them in the end. I always realize I am giving them to a person who has a bigger need and moment than me.” I believe she told me she has trained 10 puppies over the years. “The real CCI gift is the magic they have for teaming the right puppy with the right veteran or disabled person. They are masters at that.”

It is a passionate program. 89-year-old Marion Cartafalsa is a major contributor; “Because dogs are the truest souls. When you see these wounded warriors, and realize what greater program can you support? It covers the highest level of service from animal to man.”
Sondra Thiederman, trainer extraordinaire with Puppy-in-Training Magill. Marion Cartfalsa — major CCI donor in her vintage outfit.
Not to mention matchmaking. Dennis Sproule and Natalie Woods both qualified for therapy dogs, (his is Nat, hers is Jane) they met at the CCI center. They have been married for 16 years. 

Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel GM Bruce Brainerd is the champion of the CCI program.  Along with being the most popular GM in Orange County Community, he is a dog lover and started his hotels monthly “Yappy Hour” (elaborate cocktail parties for dogs and owners) that have become a “must-be-seen-at” event for all of LA’s Southern Coastal dog owners.  The hotel is already known as the most luxurious dog friendly hotel complete with menus and bed linens for the pooches.
Natalie Woods and Dennis Sproule's matchmaker Therapy Dogs.
Volunteer trainer Caroline Lepore with 14-month-old training pooch, Meredith. Kelly Bussio and her therapy dog Tadaki.
Bling-collared therapy companion.
Puppy-in-training on the Red Carpet.
But Brainerd is known mostly as the proud owner of Brock — the hotel mascot who was a CCI “release” dog (“He didn’t ‘flunk‘ — he just found another job” says Brainerd). With the popularity of Yappy Hour and the now four-year success of his Diamond Ball — Brainerd has become a kingpin in the therapy dog world. But it was the dogs and owners and trainers who were the stars of the glamorous event. 

Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel GM Bruce Brainerd and his beloved Brock.
Bruce took to the stage with Brock, who ended up upstaging his owner with his “downward dog” posturing and various lounging poses — its clear Brock should have his own reality show.  He is well known to work the Ritz lobby on a regular basis.

But the real feature of the evening was Staff Sergeant Jason Morgan who is now the best selling author of “A Dog Called Hope; The Special Forces Wounded Warrior and the Dog who dared to Love Him.” Of course, it has been bought for the movies.  48-year-old Morgan enlisted in the Air Force in 1989, and later joined the Special Operations Aviation Regiment (a unit of the Green Berets) as a combat meteorologist. 

He was in an SUV accident in South America, and had his body crushed, landing him in a coma for two months.  Alive but paralyzed, he spent three and a half years in and out of hospitals for surgery and depression. His wife left him, and he now raises his three sons. In 2010, he got his first service dog, and it changed his life.  Sergeant Morgan is now the Spokesperson for the training of service dogs to enhance the lives of the disabled. 

Sergeant Morgan also participates in the Warrior Games Competition for wounded and injured service members, and has been a perpetual winner — along with his current dog Rue — who is “The girl in his life.”  “She not only leads me and helps with laundry and takes care of me, she gets me dates.” No Kidding!
Staff Sergeant Jason Morgan and his gal-pal Rue Therapy Dog Rue working her magic :-)
Sergeant Morgan and Rue’s story was impressive as was the whole Diamond Ball experience. I was exhilarated but exhausted after being on all fours with the puppies most of the evening. Everybody from the organizers to the owners to the trainers was the ultimate in “Give Back” philosophy.

It makes me think of my own poodle “Sunshine” who only knows about “giving back” by lying on his back demanding constant belly massages. He is way too narcissistic to serve, let alone answer my phone or get my laundry from the dryer.

But I learned that a dog’s mere presence is a “service” to humanity.  At the end of the evening, I realized I didn’t hear a single bark, or see any characteristic “jump-up” behavior from any of the dogs, or humans.

It dawned on me as I looked at the CCI dogs, the phrase “every dog has his day” is so true, and may prove fitting in this election result.
Giving back by laying on his back!