When Elana Cohen decided to raise a puppy for Canine Companions for Independence as her bat mitzvah project almost two years ago, she had no idea her work would take her down Pennsylvania Avenue in President Obama’s second inaugural parade.
Elana, 13, a seventh-grader at Cabin John Middle School in Potomac, spent 16 months working with Prancer, a Canine Companions puppy, training her in simple commands and exposing her to different social situations. Although Prancer has moved on to more advanced training, Elana still is involved with the CCI program, helping at training sessions and dog-sitting when other members need time away.
Elana held one end of the CCI banner as she and other members of the organization, along with some of the dogs they are working with, joined in the presidential celebration.
“I’m excited. I’m really excited,” Elana said last week. “When we first found out about the parade, I was going to walk [CCI dog] Sirocco, but then they asked me to hold the banner in front of the whole group.”
Elana’s father, Jeff Cohen, walked next to his daughter leading Sirocco.
The CCI group included 132 volunteers and 57 dogs.
CCI is a nationwide nonprofit organization that provides trained assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities at no cost to the recipients.
“This is a great honor for us,” said John Bentzinger, public relations director for CCI’s Northeast region. “It is a chance to recognize our program and sense of teamwork and commitment.”
Bentzinger said CCI was one of only 43 organizations invited to be in the parade out of nearly 2,800 that applied.
Quoting a press release form the Presidential Inaugural Committee, Bentzinger wrote: “The President has placed a big emphasis on the idea of service — including a National Day of Service as part of the inaugural tradition — and many of the groups chosen to march in the parade reflect the idea of serving one another and giving back to the community.”
Serving and community are ideas that got Elana working with CCI. Months before her bat mitzvah, the time in Jewish tradition when a girl transitions into adulthood, Elana was searching for a good-deed project to do when she learned of the idea of raising a puppy for CCI.
“Elana loves, loves, loves to help people, and she loves dogs. It only took seconds for me to realize what would happen,” said Lisa Cohen, Elana’s mother.
After a phone interview and training classes that Elana and her mother attended to learn more about the program, in July 2011, the Cohens picked up their newest family member, Prancer. She was 8 weeks old and weighed 10 pounds.
“I thought she was the cutest thing in the world,” Elana said.
For the next 16 months, the Cohens worked with Prancer, teaching her basic commands and taking her to classes, the vet and just about anywhere else they could. The main job of puppy raisers, they said, is socializing the dog.
They also sent a monthly report to CCI telling of their work with the dog and what Prancer had done and learned.
On Nov. 9, one month after Elana’s bat mitzvah, they had to return Prancer to CCI. Their time together was over. Prancer was ready for six weeks of intensive training before being placed as a companion dog.
Although she no longer has a puppy to raise, Elana said she always wants to keep her relationship with CCI.
“I think it is a really great organization,” she said. “It is so cool that they can turn a little puppy into a dog that knows over 100 commands and can help somebody that really needs it.”