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WASHINGTON — The 2013 Presidential Inaugural Parade played host to another inaugural event.
Santa Rosa, Calif. based Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) made their inaugural debut in the parade, which also marked the first time a dog organization participated.
According to CCI National Director of Marketing Jeanine Konopelski the mother of a Skilled Companion Team from Virginia was the catalyst for the organization’s involvement.
Carina Elgin said her daughter Caroline’s Service Dog, Sajen changed her life and she wanted to show her gratitude to CCI and provide a platform for people to learn about the organization.
The Labrador - Golden Retriever mix black dog was partnered with Caroline 9 years ago.
The now 19 year old has grown up with her 11-year-old dog. Cerebral Palsy has limited Caroline Elgin’s mobility and impaired her speech.
And through the years, Sajen has opened more than just threshold doors for his partner.
He opened the door to a world of opportunity through his unconditional love that bridged barriers to socialization and resulted in building Caroline’s self confidence and independence.
As a young girl with a young Service Dog, Caroline joined a 4H Dog Club.
Despite her limited verbal ability and restricted hand motion, Caroline was able to command Sajen as she took him through Rally Obedience and Agility Trials.
She and Sajen earned a rainbow of ribbons each year in the annual Virginia Dog Show. Though she paced her dog through the rings from her joystick controlled wheelchair, she never asked for any special consideration and competed on equal ground with the other 4H dog handlers.
But Sajen’s ability to help open the door for CCI participation in the 2013 Inaugural Parade is perhaps his biggest achievement to date.
“I was so proud to be walking with Sajen. He has been my best friend and helper for nine years and will be retiring soon, but it was so special to walk with him down Pennsylvania Ave.,” said Caroline Elgin. “ He trotted along and wagged his tail the whole time like he knew this was something special.”
The inaugural parade includes representatives from all 50 states. Though CCI didn’t have a representative from each state, they had participants that stretched from the Atlantic to Pacific coast and included all five CCI Regions.
All four types of CCI Dogs were represented, including Skilled Companion Teams, Hearing Dogs, Facility Dogs, and a CCI Wounded Veteran Initiative Service Dog.
Puppy raisers from around the country also marched in the parade. The youngest puppy in the parade was 4-month old Shyla who is being raised by the Slater family in Upperville, Va. Sajen was the oldest dog in the parade.
“It was amazing how good all the dogs, even the little puppies were, but they are CCI dogs and just really know how to behave,” said Caroline Elgin.
The puppies were wearing their yellow training vests and the graduate dogs were wearing their blue CCI vests. However their human counterparts were all dressed in matching yellow hats and jackets with the organization logo on the back.
Caroline Elgin said some people commented that the outfits made them look like bananas, “but they were warm.”
CCI introduced their balloon dog mascot “Independence” who rode on the parade float with some of the participants. The large yellow dog wore a blue CCI vest and collar.
Caroline Elgin said, “I thought the float was "Labrador able"!
Event though the teams had a long day, she said it was great to be with all the other CCI participants.
She noted that it was already dark as they headed up the street, but when they turned the corner towards the White House reviewing stand the parade route was flooded with bright lights.
Caroline Elgin was on the side of the float closest to the President’s reviewing stand
“Vice-President Biden got really excited when he saw us,” said Carline Elgin. “He knows about CCI and his face really lit up when he saw us. He gave us the “thumbs up”.
She said President Barack Obama was busy having his picture taken, but turned around and got a huge smile on his face and waved when he saw them.
With Sajen by her side, Caroline Elgin matured from a young girl into a young woman. She is a currently a second year Graphic and Web Design student at the Art Institute of Virginia-Dulles and designer at www.labradorabledesigns.com . Her company makes a donation to CCI for each item sold.
Though Sajen’s paws help in many ways, she used modern technology to provide her first hand account of their participation in the 57th Inaugural Parade.
The day after the parade Caroline Elgin and Sajen were both pretty tired, but she said, “It was so exciting to represent CCI and people with disabilities. It was history.”
CCI was one of about 60 applicants chosen from nearly 3,000 parade applicants. Even though CCI made history marching in the 57th Presidential Inaugural Parade, the dogs trained by CCI to assist persons with disabilities make history on an individual basis every day.
“We’re so grateful for this chance for the world to know about Canine Companions for Independence,” said Carina Elgin. “The volunteers are thrilled to show everyone that this opportunity is out there to help enrich the lives of people with disabilities. I want more people like my daughter Caroline to be able to have a dog change their lives.”
CCI was founded in 1975 by Dr. Bonita Bergin and is the largest non-profit provider of trained Service Dogs. They have five regional training centers in the United States and are recognized worldwide for the excellence of their dogs and programs.
CCI provides Service, Hearing, Facility, and Skilled Companion Team dogs free of charge to approved applicants.
For more information, visit cci.org  or call 1-800-572-BARK.
Photo by Joanne Pergolis, Courtesy of LPCC
Canine Companions for Independence new mascot, Independence is surrounded by smaller, but real live versions of himself on the Inaugural Parade float. (Photo by Lauren Sikora, Courtesy of CCI).