- Associated Press - Sunday, August 6, 2017

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) - Williamsburg couple Jim and Mona Overturf are impacting lives more than 200 miles away from home.

The Overturfs teamed up with national nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence, which provides trained assistance dogs to adults and children with disabilities. The couple raised an assistance dog for an 11-year-old boy with disabilities in Connecticut.

For a year and half, the Overturfs trained yellow Labrador retriever Joanie III from the time she was 8 months old.

The couple recently said goodbye to Joanie - for a good cause.

Joanie recently was matched with Thomas Hastings of Windsor, Conn., who is wheelchair-bound.



The dog is trained to respond to 40 commands, turn light switches on and off, collect items, and open and close doors as a result of the Overturfs’ work.

“Joanie is a very special dog, and we hope to have many wonderful years with her. I can’t thank Mona and Jim Overturf enough,” said Brad Hastings, Thomas’ father.

The couple prepared the dog before she was sent to advance training for six months at Canine Companions’ northeast regional headquarters in Medford, N.Y.

Mona said they received report cards and photos while Joanie was at training camp. She compared it to sending a child away to college.

“The report card at the end of the month lets you know what the dog is learning, what they are doing and what they need to work on,” Mona said. “They will send photos every once in a while.”

Their work was on a volunteer basis. They said they were ecstatic to see it pay off when Joanie finally was matched with a human companion during a two-week team training class at the Northeast Regional Center owned by Canine Companions for Independence.

During the camp, assistance dogs train with their human companions before leaving together to resume their normal lives. Once finished, they graduate from the program, and initial trainers such as the Overturfs must say goodbye.

“We got to meet the family, and that’s very special to see where the dog is going to,” Mona said. “It’s a time filled with mixed emotions. You’re really happy the dog you’ve raised made it and you get to meet the family.”

It wasn’t easy for the Overturfs to give Joanie up, and they still stay in contact. They said Thomas sends them photos, emails and video updates.

The Overturfs have been involved with the Canine Companions for Independence for more than 15 years. They started as donors.

When their own dog died a few years ago, they decided to become puppy raisers. The puppies stay with a family for a year and a half before moving to the training center.

The Overturfs travel to Richmond twice a month for classes that teach them how to raise assistance dogs.

“Joanie was our first, and it was a learning experience because Canine Companions for Independence has their own way of training dogs and the commands are different,” Jim said.

Mona and Jim are now raising two assistance dogs.

One is 6 months old and the other is a year and a half. The elder will go to the Canine Companions Northeast Regional Headquarters to finish training in November.

The goals of Canine Companions for Independence is to raise awareness and educate people about highly training assistance dogs and their benefits, said John Bentzinger, spokesman for Canine Companions for Independence.

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