By Mark Ambrogi
Brett Lemieux didn’t have to imagine the value an assistance dog can have. He could see it up close.
His girlfriend Amy Ettinger’s 16-year-old son, Blake Gipson, who has cerebral palsy, has benefited from a Canine Companions for Independence graduate for six years.
“I saw how awesome they were and what the organization does for people,” Lemieux said.
The Carmel resident had been involved with CCI for more than five years and is a certified facilitator – or handler – for Ettinger’s dog. So he decided to help train a puppy to be a future service dog.
Lemieux, 36, isn’t new to working with dogs. He has had 12 foster dogs in the past through a Labrador retriever organization in Indianapolis.
“This was a little more rewarding seeing what they do, how they do it and what they use the dogs for,” he said.
Lemieux received Kaya, a Labrador who will be a year old in June, when she was nearly three months old. He will turn Kaya over to CCI in February 2017 for final training. Because the organization relies 100 percent on its volunteers, Lemieux is responsible for paying for Kaya’s food, medical care and other expenses.
“I’ve had the experience through the fostering where I’ve done pretty much all puppies and you’re just basically fostering them until they find a family,” he said. “I’ve had them from a week up to five months. You know where they are going, but you definitely get attached to them.”
However, Lemieux said there is another side to it.
“You see the rewards to it if the dog graduates and goes to a family,” he said. “Hopefully you can keep in touch with that family and see how they’re doing. You’re doing it for a good cause.”
Lemieux said his duties are to be an advanced obedience trainer and work on socializing the dog. Kaya is used to children as his daughter, Madison, 11, and son, Jaxson, 10, often stay with him.
In addition, he has two male rescue Labradors which each weigh about 125 pounds.
“They’re big boys. They’re a lot of fun and helped (Kaya) a lot,” Lemieux said. “She picked up on stuff a lot quicker. They keep her in line.”
Lemieux said it’s also important to have Kaya experience different weather and public atmospheres.
“So she’s not scared of anything and nothing is unusual to her,” he said.
Being a handler for Gipson’s Labrador, Kiwi, has helped Lemieux train Kaya.
Ettinger, a Fishers resident, said Kiwi has been instrumental in her son’s sophomore emotional and social needs.
”He’s gone through several surgeries and Kiwi has been a comfort to him in his recovery,” Ettinger said. “She’s been a motivation in his therapy. She’s been able to participate with him. Socially, she’s been amazing. With his crutches, walker or scooter, his equipment can be intimidating for other kids in public to approach him.
“But when we have Kiwi with us, they’re more prone to come up and ask to pet her. That’s completely Blake’s decision and he always says yes. That gives him the opportunity to socialize with kids in the community and out in public. It makes them aware he’s just like them. He’s looking for relationship and friendships as well.”
Kiwi typically walks alongside of Blake, a Fishers High School sophomore. If Blake drops something when he is in his scooter, Kiwi can pick it up for him. Kiwi is trained to open the refrigerator and turn on and off lights if needed.
Ettinger said it’s been a different experience being around a graduate dog like Kiwi and then Kaya.
“It’s been neat for Blake to see how Kiwi started, and it’s been neat for Brett to see where Kaya is going,” she said. “It’s been really interesting and fun.”
Ettinger said she would suggest a service dog for anyone with physical or emotional disabilities.
“They’re amazing creatures,” she said. “They help in so many different ways.”
Meet Brett Lemieux
Personal: Originally from Albuquerque, N.M., Lemieux has lived in Indianapolis area since 2000. Works for a sports marketing company, Sport Stars.
Favorite thing to do with the dogs: “I have a huge yard and they all like playing in the backyard, throwing the ball around. She’s obviously a ball of energy around. Kaya loves chasing her big temporary brothers around. She’s a normal dog.”
What does Lemieux do to relax: “It’s a dog life when you have three and are around a fourth a lot. Both my kids are in athletics so we’re always on the go.”