Elijah the service dog in training was lucky enough to meet several Disney characters, but he liked Cinderella best
The happiest place on Earth recently reached peak pureness.
Earlier in the month, Ashley Wilt visited Disneyland with a special guest. Wilt is a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) — a non-profit with six campuses across the country where people train and place service dogs free of charge to those in need.
With her fourth puppy trainee, Elijah, the Carroll College anthrozoology major decided to take a trip she had been planning to take with a service dog in training since she started puppy raising in 2015.
“He is my first service dog pup that I have taken to Disneyland,” Wilt tells PEOPLE. “It is a really, really good training opportunity because he gets to practice and focus on working around so many different distractions: kids, food and characters in costumes.”
When Wilt or any volunteer puppy raiser with CCI receives an 8-week-old puppy from the non-profit, it is their job to care for the canine and prepare them for life as a service dog for the next year-and-a-half.
This precious process starts with housebreaking the puppies and training them to sleep through the night and gradually expands to teaching the little dogs dozens of basic obedience commands and socializing them for a job that can take them anywhere.
“My main goal is to raise a confident and well-adjusted puppy that will succeed in their professional training and eventually as a service dog,” Wilt explains of the puppy-raising process. “We do a lot of age-appropriate socialization and bring them all different places. When they’re young, they don’t go everywhere, but as they get older and show they can handle it, they go everywhere.
“He goes to college classes with me, to movie theaters, restaurants, he has now been on 20 airplane flights with me,” she adds of Elijah’s training. “That’s to make sure he is confident in those situations, because as a service dog we want to make sure he fits into his client’s life perfectly.”
After 18 to 22 months with their puppy raisers, the dog trainees return to a CCI campus to undergo about six months of professional training. During this training, the dogs build upon the basic commands taught to them by their puppy raisers and learn tasks that will be important during their life as a service dog, like opening doors, turning lights on and off and pushing a wheelchair. The dogs that pass this phase of training are placed as a service dog with an owner.
“CCI places a few kind of service dogs. They do not place guide dogs for the blind, but they place dogs with people with mobility impairments, service dogs for children with autism or Down syndrome, hearing dogs and they just started a pilot program to place PTSD dogs with veterans and first responders,” Wilt says.
Elijah will move on to this professional training next month, which means his time with Wilt is drawing to a close.
After a wonderful year-and-a-half together, Wilt decided to treat the well-behaved pooch to a work field trip to Disneyland. The 20-month-old Labrador retriever, who sports a yellow puppy-in-training vest when he is out in public, was still working while he was at park, but was given plenty of breaks so he could cuddle with the characters he met.
Elijah was lucky enough to get quality time with Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Ariel, Snow White, Pluto and Cinderella.
“I think he liked Cinderella the best because he just sunk into her lap,” the puppy raiser says.
The experience was so enjoyable for both Elijah and Wilt, who also used the trip to spread the word about CCI’s amazing work, that the puppy raiser plans to take all of her future canine trainees there before returning the dogs to the CCI campus in California.
“I think it will be a nice thing to do as a goodbye. Just have a day of fun,” she says. “It’s a great way to celebrate the year and a half we had together.”
Every goodbye is understandably hard for Wilt, but Elijah’s might be a little more difficult, since the canine lived in Wilt’s dorm with her for her entire freshman year.
“It was super comforting because the first year away from home at college can be a little scary,” Wilt says of her time with Elijah, adding the dog also helped her make new friends at school.
Wilt isn’t sure when she will get her next puppy from CCI, but thinks she might take a few months off from being a dog mom to focus on school. With her major in anthrozoology, Wilt hopes to graduate and become an employee at CCI.
For those who can’t work at CCI full-time, but would love to support the non-profit and their pups, Wilt said that CCI is always looking for volunteers, including puppy raisers. Even if you are not located in the same state as a CCI campus, you can still be a CCI puppy raiser. Right now, CCI has at least one puppy raiser in every state in America.
To learn more about donating to or volunteering with CCI, please visit the group’s website.