Nonprofit dedicated to comforting canines carries on legacy of 2-legged dog named Kandu
September 8, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Melissa Uchitelle-Rogers fought back tears as she recalled a high school student she met while visiting SkyView Academy in Denver in April as part of her work with Colorado Comfort Canines, Inc., a nonprofit she founded four years ago with her husband, Ken Rogers.
"The kids, as a class project, organized what they called a de-stress day," Ken said. "They set up different stations and different activities to show other students how they de-stressed."
That day included light jazz, healthy food and plenty of ways to relax. It was organized by a group of seniors in the wake of the Parkland High School shootings in Florida.
As part of the day, Colorado Comfort Canines brought four teams that consisted of a handler and a cuddly dog whose job it was to take the students' minds off any problems.
One of the teams included a two-legged Chihuahua named Luci, who has more pep than the Energizer Bunny and fewer paws than most canines.
"There was a little boy there — to me he looked very small — and I thought he was a brother of a high school student. It turned out that he wasn't. He was a high school student," Melissa said. "He made an immediate connection with Luci. He picked her up and sat with her, and she just fell in love with him. I have never seen her act that way with anyone. He held her for two hours, and, while she is a loving dog, that is so not Luci. She kept kissing him and rubbing up against his face, his shoulder and his stomach."
When the day came to an end four hours after it started, the boy asked if he could help clean up, and he wanted to keep holding Luci. When everything was in its place, the boy carried Luci back to the car, and as Melissa went to take the dog from him, he took the moment to share something with Melissa that Luci already knew.
"I was waiting for him to hand Luci back to me, and he said, 'Do you know that I'm really sick?'" Melissa recalled, "And he told me there was something wrong with his heart. She knew. Luci totally knew that he was sick and needed comfort."
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Confirming the right course
Melissa said it was a moment that confirmed for her that what she is doing with Colorado Comfort Canines is the right thing.
"We both work a lot of hours on too many jobs," Melissa said. "So, we decided to sell our house and get out of our mortgage, so that we would have more time to do this."
Ken is the district manager of the South Routt Medical Center in Oak Creek, and Melissa is a nurse at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs and teaches medical terminology online.
Both Ken and Melissa teach at Colorado Mountain College. The two sold their house earlier this summer and are now renting a home just off of Colorado Highway 131 south of Oak Creek.
Full house, full hearts
All you have to do is knock on the door to know this is a home full of dogs and full of love.
Visitors are greeted by the barking voices belonging to five, two-legged Chihuahuas, a rat terrier and one four-legged black lab named Jasmine. The family also includes Willow, a two-legged cat, and Mateez, a cat that suffers from swimmer's syndrome where the animal's front legs were not strong enough to stand up when it was young, and as it grew older, its legs end up going out on both sides.
Life inside the Rogers' home changed 14 years ago when Ken fell in love with a dog named Kandu. He saw the Jack Russell terrier on a Denver news program.
Kandu was a two-legged dog that had been taken to a shelter by its owners to be euthanized. But the dog was rescued, and after being featured on the news, more than 100 people called the station hoping to be Kandu's next owner.
"I was working nights at the time, and the next morning Ken told me about it, and I thought 'No way,'" Melissa said. "My thought was we live at 8,000 feet, and we are going to get a two-legged Jack Russell, and how is this going to work? There will be so many people applying for this dog, there was no way Ken was going to get it."
Ken was already involved with Heeling Friends — an animal-assisted therapy program in Routt County that visits hospitals, schools and senior citizens centers — with a dog that they already owned.
"My thought was that this little dog would make a great therapy dog," Ken recalled.
Outwardly, Melissa was being supportive, but in the back of her mind, she still wasn't sure.
"We got a phone call that they wanted us to interview to see if we would work with Kandu," Melissa said. "We went to Denver so they could observe us.”
But, as Kandu made his way across the parking lot, the little dog's wheels — which helped him still walk — got caught on a rock and he flipped head-over-heels, and in the process, captured Melissa's heart.
"He got up and shook himself off and just kept going," Melissa said. " I was just totally in love. It was love at first sight."
Starts with a Kandu attitude
Kandu was just the start for Ken and Melissa.
Since then, Ken and Melissa have adopted a number of dogs and cats with disabilities. And after that, people just started finding them. Luci was abandoned at a truck stop in Colorado, Doug came from Oklahoma, Gryffindor and RuPaul came from the Denver Dumb Friends League, Deuce is from Texas and Mateez found her way to the Rogers from the Bahamas. Most of the animals where born with a disability except for Doug, who lost his legs after being attacked by another dog, and Willow, who was abused.
"Every time I look back, I think how lucky we were that Ken was home when they did the story on Kandu," Melissa said. "If he had not seen that story, our lives would have been so different."
Kandu died in December 2016, leaving a hole in Ken and Melissa's home and heart. And its his spirit that has fueled Ken and Melissa's efforts with Colorado Comfort Canines.
The group currently has 10 humans and five teams of dogs that will respond anywhere there is an emotional crises. The group has already visited schools like SkyView Academy and responded to the Royal Hotel & Bar fire in Yampa, which burned to the historic building to the ground in 2015. They have also attended several funerals where their dogs have lifted spirits and helped begin the healing process for families.
Ken said he would like to see Colorado Comfort Canines continue to grow across the region and state.
"We need more people," Melissa said. "In order to be one of us, you have to have a certified therapy dog, and the human member has to have taken the critical incident stress management class."
Ken said he would like to see the organization expand to at least 30 teams, so that Colorado Comfort Canines would have enough depth to send dogs to natural disasters and other major events across the country.
Ken is the first to admit that owning dogs with disabilities can be challenging at times, but that the rewards are worth it. Since inviting Kandu into his life, Ken started making wheels that help dogs remain mobile.
"I've made a dozen other carts for other dogs. I just give them away," Ken said. "We don't want anyone to not adopt a dog because they don't have a conveyance device."
Ken joked that when shelters come across an animal with a disability, they go to "S" for sucker in their Rolodex and find his name. Many times, people have called him to ask him about the carts or to come see a dog, and he ends up with another dog.
Plenty to offer
Ken also tells people they should not shy away from adopting a dog with a disability. He said a dog may be missing a leg or two, but they have plenty to offer.
"Folks get intimidated by dogs with disabilities," Ken said. "They think it's a hardship — it's too much work or the dog isn't going to have a good quality of life, and they are hesitant. There are ways to accommodate them and give them a better quality of life."
And the Rogers say owning an animal with disabilities can have a profound effect on the owners.
"You have to go with the flow of what they can do and know when they can do more than they are pretending they can't do," Melissa said. "The reward is seeing them when they run around on their wheels, or when they get strong enough to jump up to the couch or figure out how to take a little ramp up to a window seat. Those are all rewards.
"It's fun to watch them play with each other and wrestle and run. It's hysterical," Melissa continued. "They are just regular dogs — they are so free, happy and goofy. That's a huge reward to know that these guys have been given a life, given a chance and not thrown away."