When Cooper the CASA dog passed way in late November, it created a void that was felt by everyone who had met him.
From the children with the CASA of Lea County program to those at juvenile detention. From the employees at the Lea County Treasurer’s office who met with Cooper for only a few minutes before his work at district court, to his own co-workers who got to know Cooper on a daily basis. They all felt empty when Cooper died of Cancer last year.
But that void has a chance to be refilled with a new set of paws and a lovable coat of fur to hug. His name is Phillip and CASA’s new canine assistance dog is scheduled to be ready for work in late October. If not, then Phillip will not be delivered until after the holiday season.
“He is a beautiful black Labrador,” said Hope Hennessy, CASA’s community liaison and canine handler. Phillip will live with Hennessy and her two sons, Mason Arreola, 11, and Lucas Arreola, 18. “He’s a big boy, an English Lab. And when he gets here (in October) he’ll be about 18 months old.”
Phillip is currently finishing his training at Assistance Dogs of the West in Santa Fe. He made a visit to Hobbs during the summer and was taken to a variety of locations where he will work. This was in an effort to understand what Phillip’s surroundings will be and if there is any additional training needed.
“When Phillip was down here with his trainer, they checked out Hope’s home, the courthouse, the juvenile detention center, the CASA office, and numerous restaurants,” Braun said, “and they found during the exploration that he needed more training to go into the juvenile detention center.”
Hennessy said the loud clanging of the center’s automatic doors caused Phillip to look over his shoulder.
“It’s a harsh environment,” Hennessy said. “The automatic doors were very loud and that startled him and he was looking over his shoulder. So they took him back and worked with him on that.”
There will be an adjustment phase between Phillip and his new environment and family. Everyone at the CASA office was used to Cooper’s playful nature.
“ P h i l-lip is a little more chilled than Cooper in his personality. Cooper had this ‘I’m the center of the universe’ personality and Phillip is more laid back. Maybe because he is more British and he is more reserved,” Hennessy joked. “If you want to play or the other dogs want to play Phillip’s cool with that, but if they don’t want to, he’ll try and if they say no, then he’ll go and find something else to do on his own.”
The cost of training a new dog, as well as the CASA staff is around $6,200.
“After Cooper’s death, I had to evaluate if we could afford to continue the program,” Braun said. “It costs quite a bit of money to get a service dog. We have to pay for our training and even though we have been through training it’s required that we do it again. Then there is all the travel to Santa Fe. So I had to decide. Can we afford it?”
But then Braun balanced those negatives with the positive impacts with the number of kids they serve.
“The new programs we have started, like the juvenile detention center,” she said. “We had to do the math and it won out where we said ‘Yes. Let’s move forward with the application’ and see how long it would take for them to find a dog that matches us. We are very different than someone who needs a service dog. We need a facility dog, a broad personality like Cooper’s that doesn’t get scared off by a loud child. We need a dog that can handle anything that is thrown at him.”
Sometimes it takes up to 2 1/2 years to find a perfect match. CASA of Lea County got lucky when they got Cooper 10 months after their application was made. It came in just as Cooper’s litter was set to graduate and Cooper was evaluated as being a perfect match. Lightning has struck again with Phillip, who was found to be a perfect match within a year and is set to begin work 10 months after the application was made.
“They start the training the puppies at eight weeks,” Hennessy said. “Then throughout their training they may stay on the weekends with puppy raisers so that they may be exposed to different experiences. They put these dogs through all sorts of experiences so they can do their job, and also to flush out dogs that have issues with things. It can be as small as tile floors. A dog can flunk out because of an aversion to tile flooring. If there’s nothing, the dog passes.”
The 10-month absence seems to have been the perfect amount of time for mourning and reflection of the work Cooper did.
“The thing that I am most excited about is that when we had Cooper, it was unknown territory,” Hennessy said. “We went out there on a wing and a prayer and Anita’s belief that this was important and valuable and we made it work and it grew.”
Cooper was seen at juvenile detention, the Hobbs schools, PDAP and the district attorney’s office. CASA had other district attorney offices and CASA programs throughout the U.S. asking for more information about the canine program in an effort to create something similar.
“Personally, what I am most excited about is that we saw for 6 1/2 years the kind of change that Cooper could affect and the small ways that he made juvenile detention a kinder, better place for those kids,” Hennessy said. “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone and now that Cooper is gone and I have the chance to do it again. I really appreciate what we are able to provide for the community. I get letters from kids in juvenile detention. In all the craziness that has gone in their lives they remember the small interactions they had with Cooper and it meant something to them at that time. No matter how their lives end up, they will remember a time where someone, some strange organization with a dog, was kind to them.”
Cooper had the same impact at home, which is why excitement is building at Hennessy’s home for Phillip. She said Mason has been asking about Phillip every day since his visit during the summer.
“(The boys) have always understood between the pet dog and the working dog and the importance of treating Cooper and now Phillip, in a certain way that may not be the same as we are able to treat our pets,” Hennessy said. “We want to preserve the behaviors that they have been trained for and I think Mason has been fortunate. He has gotten this wonderful opportunity at a very young age on how animals can interact in our community in positive ways and as more than normal pets.”
When Phillip arrives he will have the same opportunity to make a similar impact on the community. At first it may be looked at as a worthy investment, but it’s more like a welcoming to a new member of the family.