ATLANTA - As a veterinarian, with 30 years of experience, Dr. Annemiek Kuik knows dogs: how to comfort them, how to treat them, how to raise them and then let them go.
"It's just a gift that I'm happy to give,” Kuik says.
She is a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence, or CCI, the country’s largest and oldest assistance dog provider.
Kuik recently received Nerf, a 5-month old Golden/Lab mix, and her fourth CCI puppy, knowing from the very start,
Nerf was never hers to keep.
"This is a dog with a purpose," Dr. Kuik says.
Wearing his CCI puppy vest, Nerf shadows Dr. Kuik everywhere she goes, even going to work with her Treehouse Animal Clinic in West Atlanta.
For the first 18 months of his life, she will expose him to as much as she can, before sending him back to CCI for his formal 6 to 9 month training in Orlando to become a service dog.
"That's the first question you always get asked. 'How can you give him up? '” she says. “What I always say is that someone else needs him more than I do. And that is the good part.”
It's hard to describe, this pouring everything you have into a puppy, teaching him 30 commands, then letting him go, to help someone else.
Kuik says she does it because she can.
"I have three healthy children, they're all gone. They live quite far away,” she says. “So, with me being a veterinarian, and loving dogs, what more could I ask for than to be a puppy raiser?"
In 40 years, CCI matched just over 5,000 service dogs with disabled partners, free of charge, funded entirely by donations.
That's huge, Kuik says, because the highly-trained dogs are worth about $50,000.
Her first puppy, Timmerman, is now partnered with a Florida woman named Wendy.
Her third puppy, Petey, recently graduated at as hearing dog.
Recently, in a moving ceremony at CCI’s training facility in Orlando, Kuik handed Petey's leash his new partner, a young woman named Kathleen.
"It's really bone-chilling, gives you goosebumps, when you are able give that leash to a person, to have them get a more independent life,” she says. “They don't even know how helpful these animals are going to be for them."
But, Annemiek Kuik knows.
That's why she will raise Nerf, love him, and -- one day -- let him go.
Because this puppy has important work to do.
"And then I will get a new one and start the whole process again,” she says.
Right now 433 people are waiting for a CCI dog. To help fund the program, the CCI Atlanta Chapter is holding its Atlanta DogFest Walk n’ Roll fundraiser on Saturday, September 10 from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at Atlanta Station. For more information, visit cci.org/dogfestatlanta