MIDDLEBURG, Va. (WUSA) --- "I have had him for almost nine years and he is the best thing that has happened to me."
Caroline Elgin, 19, describes her skilled canine companion, Sajen. The 11-year-old dog can turn off lights, pull the socks off Elgin's feet and fetch his own leash. These are just three of over 60 commands that the dog knows.
Sajen was trained by Canine Companions for Independence or CCI. The non-profit organization provides highly trained service dogs for those with disabilities.
Carina, Elgin's mother, learned about CCI when her daughter got surgery for Cerebral Palsy.
"She used to be very, very shy, because she has a little bit of a speech impediment. She's fine mentally, but she has some trouble talking. And Sajen has just given her this amazing confidence," says Carina. She says her daughter had an easier time talking with classmates after Sajen arrived.
"She would hide behind her little bangs in the corner in a wheelchair, and nobody would really talk to her. And once she got Sajen, not only was she proud and more confident almost instantly, but people would come up to her and say 'Oh, what's your dog's name?' It's a wonderful way to break the ice."
Elgin uses her iPad Mini to express herself using the text-to-speech reader.
"I am really excited about being in the Inaugural Parade, because more people who need best friends like Sajen, will learn about CCI's amazing dogs.
Elgin and Sajen have been in Middleburg's Christmas parade for the past few years. Elgin and her family are looking forward to the 57th Inaugural Parade.
CCI dogs like Sajen are prepared for training from the moment of birth. After the puppies are weaned, they're assigned to a volunteer puppy raiser who teaches them basic commands.
Gail Griffith is a volunteer who is training her fifth puppy.
"I started out wanting to be with a dog," said Griffith. "And then I found, after I met all of the CCI people and the graduates, that I was doing something that made a real difference to somebody else's life. And it gave my life purpose. I have a real reason for raising these dogs.
All CCI dogs are black labs, golden retrievers or a mix of the two.
CCI breeds these dogs for their intelligence, strength and desire to please.
Elgin, Carina and Sajen regularly attend a local puppy training class. Griffith currently trains Carlo in the class.
"This class allows us to practice our commands...We get to practice in an environment that is much more distracting than practicing at home," said Griffith.
At one and a half years old, the dogs leave their volunteers and head to Long Island. They receive formal training for six months and learn over 60 commands.
Only 40 percent of the dogs pass formal training. Those dogs are then placed into service.
The dogs who do not pass formal training are usually adopted by their volunteer puppy raisers or another person on a CCI wait list.
Canine Companions for Independence says raising and training each dog costs about $45,000.
CCI service dogs work with people with disabilities except those with blindness.