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Sajen Takes the Lead
By Middleburg Eccentric
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You may have seen him around Middleburg, a black Labrador cross wearing a blue and yellow vest, trotting happily alongside his partner’s motorized wheelchair. Sajen, a skilled companion service dog from Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), is 11 now and his muzzle is graying, but he has definitely left his mark on his girl and on this community.

For eight years, Sajen and his best friend, Caroline Elgin, have led an ever-increasing group of CCI graduates, volunteers and puppies-in-training down Main Street in the Middleburg Christmas Parade. This year, the enthusiastic spectator response at our small local parade inspired Caroline’s mom, Carina, to apply to march in the somewhat larger Inaugural Parade. Amazingly, CCI was one of 40 groups out of 3,000 that applied to be given the honor.

Caroline and Sajen, tail wagging, led the way, down Pennsylvania Avenue, with 56 CCI dogs and 135 humans. 16 people and 6 dogs were there representing Middleburg-area, in this amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Sajen and Caroline have indeed been amazing ambassadors for CCI in the nine years they have been best friends and partners. Thanks to meeting them, enough volunteer puppy raisers have stepped up to the plate to have a regular, bi-weekly CCI puppy training class at the Middleburg American Legion Hall. In addition to several amazing local individuals and families raising puppies, three area schools have taken the challenge: Middleburg Montessori (Shyla), Middleburg Academy (Rocco), and in early March, the Foxcroft School Freshman dorm will be raising a pup. (Sajen was raised at a boarding school in Vermont and thinks its great!)

The puppies, Labradors or golden retrievers or crosses between the two, are specifically bred in California for the job by CCI’s geneticist. They are then flown to volunteer puppy raisers across the country for the next stage of their lives. For about 15 months, these volunteers love, train and socialize their special charges, and then give them back for thorough evaluation and advanced training. Puppy raisers are amazing people, a key component of the community of kindness that is CCI.

Puppy raiser MegAnn Slater of Upperville will be flying to California this month to hand over Freedom’s leash to his new partner. The ticket was provided through the generosity and United mileage of a Middleburg area CCI supporter. Most of the dogs from Virginia graduate from CCI’s New York facility, as did Casella Slater’s Elizabeth III, several years ago. She stays in touch with his partner, a young man with cerebral palsy. Gail Griffith of Philomont, now on puppy number 5, Carlo, has had three puppies graduate, beating the odds.

Only 40 per cent of the dogs graduate, and puppy raisers are given the opportunity to keep them. Some Middleburg pups have already found their way home. Suzanne Lamb raised Bradley for CCI, only to have skin allergies block his way. Bradley has happily found another career, as husband Steve’s hunting dog, and is a happy retriever.

Two Middleburg pups are still in Advanced Training at the CCI North East Regional Center in Medford, NY. Kai, raised by Julie Coles and Andrews, raised by Georgiana Watt, are still busy learning the advanced commands such as opening doors and turning off light switches, and may be matched with their people with disabilities during April or August graduations.

Thanks to Sajen, Middleburg has truly embraced CCI. This dog-loving community has stepped to the plate and made generous donations, to help CCI breed, train and place these amazing dogs for free. Customers at Middleburg’s Common Grounds bought enough of Caroline’s specially designed mugs for Caroline to be able to donate $400 to CCI, and her t-shirts on sale at The Fun Shop raised more money for the cause. 

Wylie Wagg is extremely supportive of all CCI does, and Sajen loves to stop by for a biscuit. The Studio gave free baths to the Middleburg pups marching in the parade, as captured by a New York Times photographer. Caroline, a graphic and web design major at The Art Institute, donates a portion of every sale from her website , named for her labradorable Sajen to CCI. (www.labradorabledesigns.com) 
“I just do everything I can to give back to CCI, for changing my life by giving me Sajen”, Caroline added.

Sajen will be retiring soon, and Caroline will be getting a CCI “successor dog”. Sajen be able to stay with Caroline, hog the couch, belly flop into the pool and be a happy farm dog. He brought her from a shy fifth grader, hiding behind her bangs, to a confidant happy college student. He gave her the courage to find her place in the world, to reach for her own special star. Thank you, Sajen… CCI family and Middleburg CCI supporters.

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Posted on: Thursday, February 21, 2013