Finding Your Passion in Unexpected Places- An Interview with Justine Puliafico & Wally
This is a transcript from the Launch Yourself Today podcast interview with Justine Puliafico and her dog Wally. Justine discovered her passion in an unexpected place. After winning a dog at a charity auction and taking it to obedience training, Justine and her dog, Wally, worked toward becoming a therapy dog team. For the past five years, they’ve volunteered at Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) and have supported countless patients, families, staff, and support personnel. Oftentimes, they are used as a distraction for young patients as doctors and nurses consult with families, and sometimes they’re used as a reward for completing tasks such as a physical therapy session or eating a meal. Justine is now the co-founder of Independence Service Dogs Foundation, and she works closely with Nikki Esser of OC Service Dogs who she refers to in our conversation. Nikki has played a central role in helping Justine get involved making a difference through therapy dogs.
Justine, thank you so much for taking some time to join me today.
Thank you for having me.
Tell me, how did you become so passionate about service dogs? Tell me your story.
I never really knew much about service dogs before I got Wally. Our journey began at an auction and this woman, Nikki was walking around. She was dressed all in black with this gorgeous white dog. We already had a wild lab at home and my husband is saying to me, “Do not even think about it.” I’m thinking to myself, “What? I have a job, I can do this.” So as the evening goes on, the auction starts and my husband gets a phone call. He leaves and we were kind of joking around the table and we started bidding, as my husband is walking back to the table the auctioneer yells, “Sold!” The woman with the dog comes over and my husband asks, “What did we win?” I’m like, “The dog!” It was just magic. Right from the start, it was magic. Wally, our new dog came with lifetime training. So that’s when we started working with Nikki. She had already started training him, he had basic obedience and he was house broken.
For people who don’t know Nikki, who is that?
Nikki Esser is my long-time friend and dog trainer from OC Service Dogs. They had donated him and other past dogs. So that’s how I came into contact with her. Wally came with lifetime training, so we just started by taking him to basic obedience training. As we were spending time and working with her, she happened to mention that he had this really calm personality and that he might be a good candidate for a therapy dog. I had no idea what that entailed. I would never have put two and to together. So fast-forward, we finished basic obedience, we went and got our Canine Good Citizen training, and we took our therapy dog classes.
We became certified and started volunteering about 8 years ago in a third-grade reading program at a local private school. The idea behind the little private school reading is that it can be a non-judgemental place for kids to come in and read with the dogs. It gives them a less stressful environment to try something if they are self-conscious, for example. It gives the kids self-confidence in the whole private school program. So we started with that and it’s kind of branched off from there and evolved to working with a high school program in a stress related situation at a teen crisis center. And then of course, my huge passion that really launched everything was at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County. So, Wally and I have been there now for 7 years.
Let me back you up for a second, so when you were at this auction you saw this cute dog – what type of dog is Wally?
Wally is a labradoodle.
Now Wally was not in line to be a service dog, right? You weren’t looking for a service dog, you were just excited about a dog, is that correct?
Yeah, I got caught up in the moment. He was just the most adorable fluff ball. Everybody loves a puppy, right? I had never even thought about having a service dog. I had two young kids, a fulltime job and there was no need to get involved in any more volunteering than what I already did with my kids’ school. There was just a connect and spending time in the basic obedience training, it just kind of evolved. I am the luckiest person in the world to have won that auction, because it changed the whole trajectory of my life. I’ve used this to help with talking to my kids about compassion and what I’ve seen out there. I sold lightbulbs for 28 years – which is a fantastic job and I’m very proud of what I had accomplished there, but this is my next chapter. It’s just really exciting to be able to give back to the community and that’s why we wanted to start the foundation.
I have been at those auctions before – school auctions, thankfully my kids were not sitting next to me. I’ve gone with my wife who is a kindergarten teacher. So, we’ve been to those school district auctions and I have avoided them, but I have seen people like you who have given in and paid…
This was actually for a charity, Miracles for Kids. Ironically the Miracles for Kids program that raises funds has a library section at CHOC that I walk by almost every day. It’s just kind of come full circle. This dog has opened so many different doors in my life.
So how long ago did you adopt Wally?
Eight years ago.
So, you went through the obedience training. You then went through the therapy training and you got Wally officially certified as a therapy dog. That is a different type of certification than a service dog, right?
Correct, a service dog is a dog that is specifically trained for a task to help a person that has medical needs that have been diagnosed. So that type of dog works one on one with one person and is allowed through ADA Compliance and Public Access. A therapy dog and therapy dog teams, such as Wally and I, we are just regular dog owners that have spectacular dogs that can go to the next level. We take a class to learn how to work on understanding our dog’s behavior and then we go to places where we are invited. As a therapy team we are only going to places where we have been invited to visit.
Talk to me about that therapy training for a therapy dog. What did that training entail? How is that different then obedience training?
So, you have to have basic obedience. Usually working from the very beginning, you can kind of identify a dog and their different personalities. A classic example of this is that you always want to have a puppy, because they are adorable, but if you ever want to have a service dog or even a therapy dog, it’s really a good idea to get them from somebody who already trains dog. For example, my trainer has the capability in her business to get the dogs out into the public in a different way then we can. So, they are exposed to a lot more experiences as puppies and they get to see everything. How many times have you seen a dog when the trash truck goes screaming by and they freak out about it? Well, if they’ve been exposed to it and under the right tutelage and training, they are treated. They are given treats so that they understand it’s not a scary thing and that it’s okay. Those all move the dog in the right direction to become a therapy dog and a good citizen.
So, you start with basic obedience and at a year you train for your Canine Good Citizen. They have a puppy version, but you really want your Canine Good Citizen at a year. From there, my trainer has put together a therapy dog program, which is a 10-week class. So now you’ve gone from having your well-trained dog that understands commands and now you move into learning how to become a team. So that when you are out in the public, you can have successful visits. You are not worried about your dog getting tired and you can recognize the signs that your dog is getting tired. With my trainer, we have training on this all the time. We have an annual revisit, where we she recertifies the dogs. That was another reason that our pairing together to create the foundation was just such a good match.
So, we’ll get to the foundation in just a moment, but I want to learn more about you and your husband. You owned a lighting business, is that correct?
Yes, Rayvern Lighting, my aunt and uncle started it way back when. My father was in the military, so I was a Navy junior and we traveled most of my life. He retired back in New England and came back to California and he also ran the business for a couple of years. Then when they retired, my husband and I bought it from them.
You have since run it and then sold it, is that correct?
Yes, we just sold our business, July 1st. I had just sold the business and I was picking up dog food, I was at our trainer Nikki’s house and I was saying to her, “I need a project. I need another job. What is the second chapter going to look like?” She said to me, “I’ve been thinking about doing a foundation for a while, what do you think about pairing up and doing it?” Instantly I said, “You had me at, ‘What if’.”
In my time with my therapy dog work, I have seen the beauty of canine companionship at such a different level and this foundation, it allows us to bring it to more people. This is an opportunity for people that may not have been able to get a service dog. Our foundation can fundraise to help you get that. Wally at eight will eventually age out and he won’t be able to be a therapy dog forever. I may get another therapy dog, but this has just really opened my eyes to the opportunities that are out there and the importance of having good training and a good connection with your dog as well.
When you went through the therapy dog program with Wally, what was your first opportunity for you and him to partner in providing some sort of assistance or therapy to someone? What was that first experience like?
Nerve-wracking. You go through all this training and you know you’ve got a fantastic dog, but you can’t help from thinking, “What if it doesn’t work?” CHOC is a perfect example for that because all these things that I had done before with our trainer, I had the comfort of her being there to tell me when he was getting tired. But when I went to CHOC, I was out there all by myself in the wind. I’m not the most comfortable person at a hospital to begin with, which is ironic that I end up there, right? You just hope that they perform.
The dog knows what to do. If you have them properly trained, all the tools just work together and it just happens naturally. We went in the room the first time and I was nervous as all heck. They have to wash their hands before they touch the dog and I was just thinking so many things, “Do I give them a card? What do I do?” It just evolved. It organically happened. We sat and talked and they pet Wally.
Take me into that moment. You are walking into CHOC and you’ve obviously been invited there, you are going into a room of a child who is ill, terminally ill?
CHOC has two different settings. They have in-hospital visits and they have outpatient visits. Wally and I are outpatient, so we visit in outpatient fusion. It’s little kids that come in, they’ve been in and out of the hospital but now they are not in the hospital. They come in because they have to have their ports accessed for chemotherapy, for medicines, for transfusions and things like that. They can be there for hours on end. So that’s what we walk into.
We are used kind of as a carrot and in many different ways. If the kid doesn’t want to have their blood pressure taken that day, “Oh, look, Wally is here,” and they can pet Wally while they have their blood pressure taken. Or they don’t have access to the child’s port, “Oh, here’s Wally.” We can just be there and they can spend some time. It’s a distraction from the actual event that is occurring. They’ve done so many studies about how even pain medicine has been reduced after visits with pet therapy. I say pet therapy – I have a dog, but there are also other animals out there that support that as well.
So, you went in and you were a little bit nervous, how long were you there that first visit?
We are there for two hours at the hospital visiting multiple people, but the very first one would have been a 10-minute visit, just spending time. Wally is big fluffy white teddy bear, he looks like a polar bear and people don’t know what to do with him. I walk in and say, “Hi, Justine with pet therapy. You want a visit?” Maybe I’ll hear an “Okay” and you pull the curtain and they see the dog, “Yes! I want to see Wally!” So you can just walk in and you can see their anxiety, the stress, the concern just wash away from them. Sometimes they are in a chair and they are hooked up to IVs. They may not want to move but slowly you can see them move up in the chair and move closer. Wally is super lazy, so he’ll try to lay down and you can see them move into a position where they can touch him. We are there just as much for the patients as we are for the families also. There have been times where the patients are sleeping and I just spend time with the families and the moms that are sitting there. It’s just an opportunity to kind of just decompress.
So, you walked out of that room that first time after the two hours, what were you feeling? What was going through your mind and heart?
How do I sign up for the next time I come in? I was like, “Wow, I have to keep doing this. I have to push myself to overcome some of my insecurities about going into a hospital and whether I’m capable or not of handling this.” I had just been given this amazing blessing with this dog and to be able share it with other people and give them the opportunity to relax for a second. It’s hard to put into words just how impactful that is in your life. People always say, “Thank you for coming,” and I get as much from the visits as I give. I just hold the leash; the dog does all the work.
How many years have you been doing it? How often do you guys go into CHOC?
Now we go into CHOC every other week but we used to go every week. It’s getting hard on his skin. The dogs need to be groomed 24 hours before they go into the hospital to make sure that we maintain some semblance of cleanliness. Because we are visiting kids in the hospital, that can be nerve-wracking. But we’ve been at CHOC for 5 years now. So, we started with baby steps and moved into that.
The funny thing is I ended up at CHOC because my daughter had a concussion. She played soccer and she had a concussion and she was in physical therapy for six months. Going through that process and going into CHOC, she’s a teenager and they play a lot of Disney movies. She was kind of over that and she says to me, “Mom, you do all these other things and you visit all these other places, why don’t you think about going here?” So now she’s fine, she’s moved on and played college soccer and I’m still at CHOC creating these amazing experiences. I just am fortunate to be a part of it every single day.
So, I have a dog and I can tell my dog’s moods and personality and all of that. When Wally is there and then leaves, what do you sense is going on inside of him?
It’s hilarious to watch. I’ve never had a labradoodle – we only had labs. My husband would say, “Don’t tell anyone from New England we have this foo-foo Orange County dog, this is horrifying.” But now he wouldn’t have any other kind. They are brilliantly smart, easy to train and they don’t shed. They have different personalities, I have two. I have Wally who is my therapy dog and my second dog who didn’t qualify for a therapy dog.
Wally gets so fired up to go to work. Highspeed for Wally really is not nearly as active as most dogs, but he just starts to follow me around. He knows my uniform and he follows me around and he just can’t wait to get out the door to go there. His ears perk up when he hears children’s voices or when they cry. The reason they make it to the therapy dog class is because they have that special instinct and they can sense the need for interaction and they like it. So, he can’t wait to get to the hospital.
I’ll tell you, because Wally is super lazy, he sleeps for the afternoon afterwards. It’s amazing, he can also just tell when somebody needs a little bit more time with him. We’ve also visited pre-op families who are getting ready to go in for surgery, that’s a stressful time. Oftentimes you are waiting in the bed for a long-time and we’ve been in there and talked and then when seems like it’s time for the visit to close out, the little person is like, “Nope, I just want to pet one more time.” Wally will stand up and he’ll get ready for that because he can just sense that. That’s not just in Wally, that’s in a lot of dogs.
You’ve been in the lighting business for 28 plus years. I’m assuming that’s slightly more than a 40 hour per week job as a business owner?
It’s a 24/7, yes.
You were supplying lightbulbs to contractors?
Our business supplied schools and municipalities throughout the state of California, yes. Being a small business, it allowed me a little more leeway to come and go. We could have conquered the lighting industry but my husband and I made a conscious choice to be a part of our kid’s events and things like that. I also wanted to make a space for my volunteering with Wally. I was just fortunate being a small business owner that I could take the time to go and do that. Not everybody has that opportunity.
You were working with Wally even during the day while you owned the business?
So, you are right, some people wouldn’t have that opportunity. But if you are in a job that isn’t aligning with your passion, there are plenty of opportunities on nights and weekends that you could put that into practice, right?
Absolutely, if you find something that drives you, that can be something that you really look forward to as the day is going by. I didn’t necessarily always have the time to always take Wally, but I just found a way to make it happen. It feeds your passion. It makes your day job that pays the bills just a little bit better because you know that you are going out to do something that is also helping the community.
Its life giving. Not that your business isn’t life giving, but it’s just a different feel, a different flavor.
Why did you sell the business?
I turned 50 in August and twenty-eight years of doing the same thing – I’ve got a son that will be getting out of high school in two years and my husband and I thought it was just time. It was time to hand over the reins. We sold it to one of our employees who is going to do a fabulous job. We are still kind of helping her with the transition but it was an opportunity to see what else was out there. This is my second chapter. I’m really fortunate that I can have this passion, but I’m a person with a fabulous dog thanks to a great trainer. Now I have this great opportunity to join her and bring it to more people and pay it forward.
You are very young at 50. You’ve got 50 years left of life to do all kinds of things. I think you might outlive Wally.
Well, I sure hope so.
Of course, that would be cool if Wally lived another 50 years also.
So, Independence Service Dogs Foundation is the name of your foundation. You wanted to start it with your good friend Nikki who was running the business OC Service Dogs. She had trained Wally and accompanied you throughout this process. Why did you want to start this foundation? What is the point of it?
We really want to give the opportunity of companionship to more people. There are so many service dogs out there and there are also so many uncertified service dogs out there. There are so many people out there that have these great dogs that could be therapy dogs and they just don’t know where to go or who to talk to and how to get help. In my experiences at CHOC, there were families that had never even considered a dog. So, they saw the impact that the dog had with their kids at the hospital but they were afraid of dogs or didn’t know what to do or where to go. They didn’t know what resources were out there.
I always would say, “Everybody loves a puppy, but going to a trainer that starts a dog and takes some of that emotion out is really helpful. Especially if you are looking for a service dog.” Going to the pound and picking up a dog, you may be able to end up training that dog to work with you, but the success rate is higher if you get it started with a professional. And your appreciation of it will be higher, because the trainer can get some of those wicked’s taken out of your path.
A perfect example; we went back to the same breeder that Wally came from and we picked out Wally’s sister’s puppy, Shadow. He’s a great family dog, but he’s not going to be a therapy dog. He has way too much anxiety. That’s not because I didn’t know what I was doing, I brought him to class and we worked really hard. He just doesn’t have the composition in his being to take it to the next level. So, someone who needs a service dog and who goes and tries to do it on their own, they run the risk of having that same problem. Then what do you do? You love the dog, but you can’t take him out and be in public with him. Then you can’t use them as your service dog.
Our foundation allows people to come to us and we can start training the dogs for them. We can do some of that work ahead of time. I’m not training, trust me. I’m not the trainer, I leave that to the professionals. But it’s just another opportunity for people to find a safe landing spot. One thing that I’ve seen out there in pet therapy is there is a lot of people that have a great heart and could use a little bit more training. They could use a contact person to touch base with and say, “Hey, I need a little tune up here.” That’s what Nikki offers in her OC Service Dogs and that’s what we’ve brought together under the foundation. It’s being able to bring it to a broader group of people.
So, Independence Service Dogs Foundation provides financial resources in order to help someone get a service dog?
That’s the goal. Now we started Independence Service Dogs on August 1st, so we are just a baby company and still getting started.
Who is a good candidate for a service dog?
A good candidate for a service dog is someone that has been diagnosed by a doctor with a need that a dog can support. There are certain needs that we personally decided not to support. We support veterans. We support people that have been diagnosed with PTSD and people with autism. There are other things that service dogs do, but those are not things that we are going to be able to provide because we just have such a big umbrella that we are already trying to cover. We also work with residence dogs.
Just since August, we have had so many requests from all sorts of organizations asking for us to come out. Right now, we only have a limited number of resources. So that’s one of the things we are working on, trying to expand our therapy team. We currently have a team of 11 fantastic people, but we can’t overwork their dogs. If we did every visit that is requested of us, we could be working 24/7. We’ve done the Buddy Walk for down syndrome. We are going to be working with an autism program in the coming months. And we’ve worked with Century Villages in Long Beach, those are veterans with temporary and permanent housing. We’ve also worked at teen crisis centers. So, we are really trying to organize ourselves to focus on veterans and children for the time being.
We have gone to a few support programs; we were at Way Makers over the winter break and they work with supporting teens. They have a really tough job, but to take time to go and visit office buildings is tough for us because it takes us away from a visit where we can really impact children’s lives.
I also hear that you are not only wanting to provide financial support for someone who wants a service dog, but it sounds like you are trying to develop a larger team to provide therapy to individuals who request visits? Is that part of the foundation’s role as well?
Yes, that’s absolutely a part of it. It’s not inexpensive to train a therapy dog. You have to go to obedience class, you have to have the time and there is a financial commitment. I’ve had a lot of friends say, “I love what you guys do. I want to do it too.” And it’s not just, “I love, I want.” You have to go through those steps to make sure that your dog is ready to take on that responsibility.
You could be at an event where there is 100 people coming up to you and they all want a piece of the dog. They are all well-meaning and all needed, but you need to find a way to manage that. If you are just walking down the street and you’ve never taken a class to learn that, you put yourself and your dog at risk. So, this is giving them an outlet and a way to organize that.
I know every program is different, but what would you say the price point ranges from both obedience and a therapy dog certification?
Therapy dog certification is probably about $5000 from start to finish, if you are starting with obedience and then you go through everything.
How long would that take if the dog progressed at an average rate?
It’s usually about two years. You do your basic canine obedience for a year and then after that is when you move into the next step. It evolves, it’s not all at once. It’s not like you pay a check for $5000 and you move on. But there is other things that go along with that. Grooming is a big part. I have Wally groomed twice a month in order to go to CHOC and it used to be once a week. So, there are those costs that are involved too.
With our foundation, there can be someone that has all the want to be involved in that but they don’t have the time or they don’t have the dog. Well, this foundation gives them an opportunity to maybe make a donation so that they can support a therapy team. For example, a residence dog costs between $15,000 and $20,000 from start, finish, certify and get placed. A service dog costs about $35,000, so those are not cheap dogs that are out there. But the gift they give back is invaluable. The foundation is a way for people to be a part of that. I’ve never been at a graduation ceremony were the dog is placed with the person, but Nikki has and I’ve heard of it. I just can’t wait to be there. It would be amazing to have donors to be able to be there and be able to support the person as they become a team to move on. It gives them their independence back.
That’s amazing. If somebody wanted to get involved with training and to develop a therapy dog – some people are listening to this across the country and they can’t necessarily get involved with OC Service Dogs if they live in different areas, what would be their first step? What would you suggest if they are interested in doing something like this?
Reach out to your local organizations and get just involved. With all the movies, the social media, the exposure that we are getting with the power of these animals, these organizations are out there. Due your due diligence to find out which ones are good organizations, but everybody has the ability to get involved at some level. And who doesn’t love a dog? Who doesn’t want to support a dog? Who doesn’t want to help make things better?
I always say with my kids, I’d rather put time and effort into something positive before there is an incident and then need to react towards it. Our therapy dogs can come after an incident of course, in fact Nikki was in Los Angeles after the shootings with therapy dogs as a comfort after the fact. But what an amazing world we could have if we had people more involved in the front end of that, where the compassion is coming and you are bringing dogs in and you are interacting at an earlier stage with business and school stresses? This is an opportunity to bring that in and work on those things before any damage has been done.
I haven’t heard you mention cats, what is your aversion to having therapy cats? What is the problem here?
I am allergic to cats.
I feel like you are very judgemental towards cats.
I love Garfield just like everybody else. No, I’m allergic to cats. Some people are cat people, some people are dog people. We were at an organizational event a couple of months ago and I ran into a gal from Europe and we had a long chat about therapy chickens. I was kind of thinking, “What the heck can a therapy chicken possibly offer?” She said, “I don’t know that it will work with my generation, but in past generations it works with Alzheimer’s patients.” They spend some time with the chicken and they pet it and it brings them back to their childhood because a lot of people came from farms. So, there are actually many, many different types of animals that can be a part of a companionship and the pet therapy team. We are just focused on dogs, that’s what my experience is in. So, I think that’s where we can lead the biggest impact of help.
Maybe, I’ll start a hairless cat therapy foundation.
I have a friend that had two of those cats. They had to have jackets on when they went outside. There is a place for everything, right?
They could bring more laughter than therapy, like comedy therapy. This is amazing what you are doing and I love that you have had a successful career and now mid-life you are going, “Okay, how do I leverage this passion?” You’ve been doing it for a while and you’ve created this foundation, if people want to learn more about it or potentially make a tax-deductible donation, where would they want to go?
We have a website, its www.independenceservicedogsfoundation.org. It’s a long name, sorry we couldn’t get it shortened. But the reason behind “Independence” is really the fundamental beginning of the foundation. We were looking at how we can do something to give people back their independence and the service dogs give back that person their independence. They give them back their ability to manage their condition and their problems all on their own. They can get back out and be productive in the world.
Residence dogs, some of them work with kids and are part of school programs. They help give the kids their independence to be proactive and to manage some of the anxiety that they have. We actually just placed a residence dog at a local private school because they saw the value of that. Now they have this dog on campus available to the students all the time. If the kid has an issue, they can come in and they can spend some time with the dog. That really allows the student to stay on campus and maybe go back to class, rather than before it might have turned into a situation where maybe they had to be removed and go home and start all over again. It’s really about trying to find a way to keep it positive and moving forward.
That is wonderful. I love your heart. I love your passion and I love your dedication to this. Make sure to check out www.independenceservicedogsfoundation.org and check out the social media links also. Thank you so much for taking time to tell us all about Wally.
Thank you, I had a great time.