From the Heart of April Oleniczak and McGuffy

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Whether raising puppies for service dog roles or coordinating strategic discussions with distributor partners, Zoetis’ April Oleniczak is devoted to demonstrating the power of the human-animal bond in the veterinary industry.

When a child is brought into the CARE House of the Pee Dee in Florence, South Carolina, the first thing he or she sees is the friendly face of a Yellow Labrador named McGuffy. The highly trained service dog greets the child, then welcomes them into the kitchen, where he opens the refrigerator and retrieves a juice box that the child can drink. A bond almost always forms immediately thereafter.

“They become fast friends,” said April Oleniczak, a senior national account manager for Zoetis, who helped raise McGuffy as a puppy through a volunteer program from Canine Companions. “He stays by their side throughout the entire process.”


Labrador McGuffy with his trainers, the Oleniczaks.
McGuffy with the Oleniczaks.

The CARE House began in 2005 when law enforcement identified a need for a more effective and efficient facility to provide forensic services to victims of maltreatment. CARE House started out with its primary focus on forensic interviews and forensic medical exams, according to its website. Over the last 10 years, the organization has broadened its focus to encompass therapies to help children through the whole process of healing from their trauma. They provide trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy, alternatives for families: cognitive-behavioral therapy, and parent-child interaction therapy.

McGuffy plays an important role in the healing journey. When the children are asked to talk about their case and the abuse they’ve suffered, they don’t have to speak directly to an adult; they can talk about it as if they are having a discussion with McGuffy while the adult is nearby. Oleniczak has heard from CARE House staff that most of the cases have been solved because the child feels so comfortable telling McGuffy their story that the abusers end up confessing due to the amount of information the child is able to provide. McGuffy is also trained to go into court with a child if needed.

Labrador McGuffy with Toy likeness
McGuffy has made a tremendous impact in his role with the CARE House.

Indeed, with his love, warmth and tender spirit, McGuffy helps hundreds of children walk through extremely difficult circumstances. He’s kind of a big deal at the CARE House and community at large. McGuffy has his own blog, Instagram page, coloring book and stuffed toy of his likeness that children can take home following their visit with the facility.

As McGuffy’s puppy raisers during the first 18-20 months of training, Oleniczak and her husband receive frequent updates from the CARE House team. They got involved with Canine Companions in 2017 after attending one of the graduation ceremonies. Initially they thought they might adopt a dog from the program that didn’t graduate. The requirements to be a service dog are rigorous and about half the dogs that enter the program do not graduate.

But following the ceremony, the Oleniczaks were all-in on the mission and vision of the organization and volunteered to be puppy raisers instead. Canine Companions provides highly trained dogs at no cost to the recipients. The dogs serve to assist with daily tasks and increase the independence of the people who receive them.

McGuffy arrived at the Oleniczaks’ house when he was eight weeks old. “It was our responsibility to provide a safe home, go to obedience classes, and then socialize him,” Oleniczak said. “We gave him all the love that we possibly could during this time. We probably learned more than he did about dogs, behavior and training.”

Puppy raisers have the dogs for 18 to 19 months. Then the dogs are returned to professional trainers to teach them all types of practical tasks that are geared toward assisting individuals with physical disabilities. Some of the tasks these dogs will do include:

  • Pulling laundry baskets
  • Retrieving and delivering dropped items
  • Opening and closing doors and drawers
  • Turning lights on and off
  • Pulling wheelchairs

 

After 18 months with McGuffy, saying goodbye brought a lot of tears, Oleniczak said. “When you are a puppy raiser people will often ask ‘How are you able to give that puppy away?’ And we kept saying, ‘This is not our puppy. We don’t own him; we didn’t get to name him. That’s part of the process. We’re doing this for someone else.’ But the day you hand him over to the professional for their next level of training, it’s very emotional.”

In fact, the Oleniczaks planned a trip out of the country following the graduation ceremony to take their mind off the emotional aspect. As hard as the handoff is, though, seeing the fruits of the labor at the graduation ceremony is equally as rewarding. “When they get matched with their people, you get to see firsthand the good that you’re doing.”

The Oleniczaks currently volunteer with Canine Companions by fostering. They will take care of a puppy for a few days and transport the dog to all its needed appointments and trainings so the full-time puppy raisers can go on vacations or get a break.

Labrador McGuffy at courthouse
MCGUFFY IS TRAINED TO GO into courthouses with a child if needed.

Shared commitment

Oleniczak counts herself blessed to be able to volunteer for an organization such as Canine Companions. She also feels fortunate to have stayed in the animal health industry for most of her career. As a senior national account manager for Zoetis, she and her team work at all levels with their distributor partners – from executive leadership to the representatives in the field – to ensure they can best serve their customers in advancing care for animals. “My team’s goal is to consistently provide our distribution partners with proper support and education, including access to the tools and resources they need to be able to deliver meaningful tactics for our mutual customers.”

Oleniczak has a well-rounded perspective of what it takes to create a successful partnership between manufacturer and distributor. She got her start in 2004 as a sales rep for Merial and worked her way up the organization to district manager and national accounts roles. She then went to work for Henry Schein Animal Health on the distributor side before eventually taking the role with Zoetis. “The very first day I came into this industry, I realized how critical [distributors] were to the success of the industry, and I then realized how rewarding it is to build those partnerships,” she said.

“Passion for what you do goes a long way in the veterinary industry,” Oleniczak said. It’s rare for Oleniczak to come across someone in veterinary medicine who is not passionate about their job. And even those outside the industry are eager to talk about their pets.

“Pets in general help us live better lives,” she said. “So, my passion has always been to help the veterinary industry be the best it can be.”

Canine Companions partners with Miracle League

Canine Companions recently partnered with the Miracle League baseball program in a game bringing the service dogs and children with disabilities together in a baseball game. The Miracle League baseball program provides opportunities for children with disabilities to play baseball, regardless of their abilities.

 

Photo caption: McGuffy is trained to go into courthouses with a child if needed.

 

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