Raising a Freedom Guide Dog at Ironwood Maine

Koko graduated from Ironwood Maine in May 2019.

Puppy raising Kokonut, a Lollie, was our first experience with a Freedom Guide Dog pup. After watching my in-laws, the Mulvihills, raise many puppies, we wanted to try it, too. My work as a therapist at Ironwood, a therapeutic boarding school in Maine, gave me the idea of why not have the residents of Ironwood puppy raise? After presenting the idea to a team of managers and the owners of Ironwood, as well as Freedom, we determined that Kokonut would spend her days at Ironwood with the kids and her nights and weekends with my family or another therapist’s family. Another therapist, Nicole, jumped at the chance to co-raise, in order to offer Kokonut respite and different experiences that my husband and I could not provide.

With my husband and I, Kokonut spent a lot of time outside with our older dogs. She would spend time in the woods during maple syrup season, swimming in the lake in the summer, and time just being a dog. Shopping, going to restaurants, and visiting college campuses were other explorations we provided. Visiting the Mulvihill puppies was also a treat for Kokonut. 

Nicole could offer Kokonut time at football games, many days at Damariscotta Lake, rides on a boat to her camp in northern Maine, and time with her teenage children still at home. Nicole’s son, Michael (who has Down’s Syndrome), especially loved Kokonut and spent time feeling more comfortable with dogs by taking responsibility for walking her and just being with her, providing her hugs and attention. 

Much of Koko’s time was spent at Ironwood. A staff member and Ironwood’s dog trainer, Ronanne, took the lead in ensuring Kokonut’s raising experience at Ironwood abided by Freedom’s expectations. Koko received her name from a vote the kids took after narrowing down “K” names. The residents thought an unusual “K” name would be cute and fun, so that is how Koko received her name. Before Koko’s arrival, it was expected that each resident would read the Freedom Guide Dog puppy raising packet before being able to handle Kokonut. When Kokonut arrived, she was greeted by 24 adolescents, two cats, seven horses, as many as five dogs on any given day, and several adults. Koko’s daytime home was in what is known as the “Farmhouse,” an old, open farmhouse in the midst of Frye mountain. Each week, Kokonut had a resident puppy handler whose responsibility was to take Koko wherever they went. Koko would walk her handler to school each morning, rest in her crate during school hours (which was often interrupted by staff who allowed her to hang out with them), and spend her afternoons participating in group activities with her resident handler. At times, she would accompany residents to appointments at the dentist and pediatrician. She would go to both individual and family therapy with residents and meet families during Ironwood’s family weekends. Each Tuesday, Kokonut would go to dog training class with anywhere from five to ten dogs, so residents could learn more about the responsibility of being a dog owner. While photos of residents cannot be shared due to confidentiality, hundreds of photos were taken of residents with Kokonut. In fact, when residents graduate from Ironwood, they have a grad photo taken to be hung in the Farmhouse. And yes, Kokonut made her way in a few grad photos and bid many residents farewell as they left Ironwood. Koko had many dog friends at Ironwood as well. June, a basset hound, was close to her age and a dear pal to run and play with. Bruin, a black lab who lives at Ironwood, would often teach Kokonut the rules of living at the Farmhouse. Uncle CJ, another black lab, would often walk alongside Kokonut back and forth to school to help her keep pace when walking on a leash. Frankie, a blue-eyed horse, was another friend to Kokonut and one she often sought out when visiting the barn. 

Kokonut had her own graduation in May 2019. She had been with all of us for almost two years and had become a daily dose of love for many. A special slide show and a meal of meatloaf cupcakes were enjoyed by Koko and her dog friends as way to celebrate. The day Koko said good-bye was an emotional one. She received many hugs, tears, kisses, and giggles as she said goodbye. 

As I reflect back on Kokonut’s adventures with all of us, I am struck by not only the rich experiences that were provided to this pup but by the love and attention she brought each and every one of the residents she came in contact with (probably in all 40+ adolescents). She was there through laughter, sadness, and even times of someone being upset. Her presence was a gift to many. I am grateful to all at Ironwood, and a special shout-out to Ronanne and Nicole, who gave Kokonut this opportunity. We are also watching her progress and cannot wait to hear who she is placed with to continue her adventure. In the meantime, the Ironwood adventure in puppy raising continues with a Barbet named Umi.

Nan Simpson, LCSW