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Vernon couple raises canines for others after loss

Tribune Chronicle / Burton Cole Rae Lynn, left, and John Phillips pose with their companion dog-in-training, Turf, a golden retriever / yellow Labrador mix, in their Vernon home. Both dog lovers since they were kids, the couple trains puppies for Canine Companions for Independence.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of Saturday profiles of area residents and their stories. To suggest a Trumbull County resident, contact Features Editor Burton Cole at bcole@tribtoday.com.

VERNON — The loss of their dogs left John and Rae Lynn Phillips reeling.

“We had two yellow Labs,” John said. “They got to be 14 years of age. It was time. We had to put them down.”

It was the spring 2016. Their dogs were gone. Their adult children had moved out, their daughter to Norfolk, Va., and their son to Nashville, Tenn.

The big ol’ farmhouse in Vernon felt cavernous.

But “we didn’t know if we wanted to go through the emotional stress of losing another pet,” John said.

They’d always had dogs.

“I’ve always liked training them,” Rae Lynn, 52, said. “Growing up, we had all different types of dogs. I liked the Labs the best. These are just such good family dogs, good-tempered dogs.”

John, 53, a chief fiscal officer for a firm in Willoughby, said, “I had dogs growing up. Mostly we had German shepherds and an Irish setter mix. I personally like the bigger dogs.”

While they contemplated what to do, the couple signed up for a 5K run in Kinsman. It was for more than just supporting a good cause, John said.

“I went up there with the notion to see an individual who had good Labs,” John said.

That man introduced them to Vicki Simons, who raised and trained puppies for Canine Companions for Independence, a Santa Rosa, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that provides assistance dogs to people with disabilities.

“My husband was running the 5K and my seventh puppy-in-training, Nike, and I walked it,” Simons said, “They were looking for a Lab puppy and were interested in the idea of puppy raising for a service dog organization. I gave them basic information, and they took it from there.”

John said, “We came home and Rae Lynn researched the organization online.”

Canine Companions is billed as the largest and oldest assistance dog provider in the nation. “She said, ‘I want to to do it.’ I said, ‘I’m in.'”

“And now we’re both hooked,” Rae Lynn said.

“They were empty-nesters looking for a way to volunteer and get involved in a charity,” Simons said. “They found their passion. Rae Lynn and John put 110 percent effort in all they do for Canine Companions, from puppy raising to raising awareness for the organization to fundraising to becoming the president of our local chapter.”

John begins a two-year term as Northern Ohio Chapter president in January.

“She (Rae Lynn) just said when I get involved in something, I jump in with both feet,” John said.

John, a board member for the Joseph Badger Local School District and the Trumbull Career and Technical Center, converted a building on their farmland into a woodshop, and works with wood cut from their property. For his winemaking hobby, he planted a mini-vineyard.

Besides being the chief puppy trainer, Rae Lynn crochets blankets for fundraisers.

In August 2016, John and Rae Lynn received their first dog, Filbert. At the same time, Simons received Fenton, Filbert’s brother, her eighth puppy. “She mentored us through the whole process,” John said.

Filbert now aids a physical therapist in Fischers, Ind., who works with school-aged children with disabilities in a consortium of five school districts. Mementoes of Filbert are placed throughout the Phillipses’ home, including a collage of photos, certificates and collar, and an embroidered pillow.

Fenton also works in a school system.

The Phillipses now are raising their second golden retriever / yellow Labrador mix, Turf, who is 13 months old. He will go back to Canine Companions in May, when he reaches 18 months.

“That’s the hard part,” Rae Lynn said. They have the dogs “just enough to get really attached.”

John said, “We hope by that time to have another puppy.”

About 1,200 puppies per year are born into the organization. Between 55 and 60 percent of them graduate from training, John said. Volunteer trainers have the right of first refusal to buy back dogs that don’t make the cut.

“You have to teach them 30 commands,” Rae Lynn said. “Socialize, socialize, socialize. He goes everywhere with us — to the movies, to dinner, he’s flown with us…”

Legally, service dogs can enter places of business normally off-limits to animals. Preparing their young wards for that is part of the basic training.

“Our dogs, when we take them out to eat, they cannot be seen,” Rae Lynn said. “They have to stay under the table and be quiet. Lots of times, there will be eight or 10 of us out and when we get up, all these dogs come out from under the table. (The reaction is,) ‘Where’d they come from?'”

She takes Turf to Badger Local Schools every Friday for kids to read to a dog. He’s also gone to Badger basketball games.

“They get really popular,” she said. “When we go somewhere, they say, ‘Where’s Turf?’ They like to see him more than us.”

After puppies are returned to Canine Companions, they spend six months with professional trainers who build on the basic commands to teach the dogs the tasks that will be needed.

The program trains for four areas: service dogs, skilled companions, hearing dogs and facility (school) dogs.

“Rae Lynn and I feel that Turf is suitable for several of the service dog programs,” John said. “Even though this is our second, we learned early on in raising Filbert that in the end, the dog chooses their own future — even if the dog gets released and becomes a ‘change-of-career’ dog.

“I guess what I am trying to say is CCI dogs are bred to change lives no matter where they end up. Rae Lynn and I should know because they have already changed ours,” he said.

Dogs, training and equipment — valued at about $50,000 — are provided free to the recipients, so Canine Companions undertakes a lot of fundraising projects and participates in plenty of demonstrations and educational visits.

John said their chapter, the Northern Ohio chapter, participated in 165 events over the past year and raised more than $100,000. Fundraising in the next year will include an Aug. 19 golf outing on the championship course at Firestone Country Club and the fourth annual DogFest Cleveland on Sept. 22 in Medina.

Would they recommend being a puppy volunteer?

“Definitely,” Rae Ann said.

“It’s very rewarding,” John said.

He said they hope to keep raising assistance puppies for as long as they are able to do so.

“I’d like to get to the point where we’re retired and we’re both raising a puppy,” he said.

They are, after all, dog people.

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