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Canine Companions for Independence

Meghan Chiodo gets to know her new service dog Polly, who was given to her thanks to Canine Companions for Independence. Photo by Jenna Lennon

By Jenna Lennon

After interviews, reference forms, applications and a year and a half of waiting, 10th-grader Meghan Chiodo from Greenlawn was finally able to meet her assistance dog, Polly.

Meghan and Polly were introduced thanks to Canine Companions for Independence Wednesday, July 26, at the nonprofit’s headquarters in Medford.

Polly, a black female Labrador-Golden Retriever will help Meghan with many different tasks aside from becoming a loyal and loving companion. Meghan was born with spina bifida and has little to no feeling or control of her legs from her knees down, so Polly will be especially helpful with giving her all the assistance she needs.

“Meghan is sort of an ideal candidate in the sense that she’s in that age where she wants to be more independent and the dog can really help provide that to her especially as she’s getting into her later years of high school,” Jessica Reiss-Cardinali, the participant program manager for the Northeast Region of Canine Companions said in an interview.

Meghan said Polly will help with tasks like “bringing my laundry from the living room to my room … the dog can carry something or I can carry it and the dog can open the door,” she said at the event. “I think those are the two [commands] I’ll probably use the most.”

Meghan’s mother Kerri said Polly will be a great assistance around the house.

“The wheelchair is now in our home, so she doesn’t have her hands free always,” her mom said. “So the dog will provide an extra set of hands for her for a little more independence and companionship. That’s going to be a big one. She’s one of four children. She’s the youngest, two are leaving off for college, so it’s nice to have a buddy.”

Canine Companions, the nation’s largest provider for trained assistance dogs, is an organization founded in 1975 aimed at providing service dogs, hearing dogs, skilled companions and facility dogs to people with disabilities free of charge. The Northeast Regional Center for CCI opened in Medford in 1989 and has since placed 861 Canine Companion teams together.

Golden Retriever, Labrador and Golden-Lab puppies are trained by volunteer puppy raisers who provide them with a safe and happy living environment, a healthy diet, obedience training and socialization.

When they are about a year and a half old, the puppies then receive professional training at a Canine Companion training center for six to nine months, learning 40 advanced commands. Then, they are matched with a child or an adult with a disability.

“Four times a year we invite people that are on our waiting list to come, and they stay with us here in Medford,” said John Bentzinger, the public relations and marketing coordinator for the Northeast region of Canine Companions. “They stay at our facilities, and we call it ‘team training.’ The dogs are already fully trained, but we’re teaching the people how to use the commands and how to care for the dog.”

Participants spend the first few days getting acquainted with the different dogs and with the commands necessary to interact with them.

On the third day of the two-week program, the matches are revealed to the participants. Matches are based on the interactions that trainers and program coordinators see during the first few days of the program between the dogs and the participants, as well as what the participants need from the dogs.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle where everybody has to fit together,” Reiss-Cardinali said. “We like to say this is like a 10-year commitment, so if you’re going to sign on for 10 years, we’d like it to be something that’s going to work for you. It’s a very happy time, and for the staff too. We’re all crying in the room because there’s a lot of work that goes into that 20 minutes.”

As for the matchup between Polly and Meghan, Reiss-Cardinali said it was a no brainer.

“They’re sort of at the same stage in life,” she said. “Polly is just coming out of young adulthood so I really feel like as Meghan grows, it will be a really nice way for them to grow together.”

By the day that the matches are revealed, participants in the program have already learned several commands to use as part of their team training with their new companion.

“We did sit, down, heel, let’s go, side, release, wait, kennel and okay,” Meghan said. “That’s it so far.”

Her mother said that’s no small feat.

“That’s it so far, but that’s a lot in two days … I think today we get six whole new commands, so that’s a lot,” she said. “The instructors are incredibly patient. You’ve got so many different people with so many different needs, and they’re accommodating all of us. I’m really impressed with this whole facility and what they do here. It’s incredible. These dogs are amazing.”

Meghan and Polly and the rest of their Team Training Class will graduate Aug. 4 at 2:30 at the Genesis Center in Medford.

To learn more about canine companions visit www.cci.org.

Michael St. Jeanos is all smiles with his new Canine Companions for Independence assistance dog Jiminy II and his mother Laurie. Photo from Canine Companions for Independence

Puppy raisers in Centereach are sad to see Jiminy II go, but glad to see he’ll be going to a good home upstate.

Heidi and Andrew Cavagnaro are four-time Canine Companions for Independence volunteers, currently raising puppies Hardisty and Paolo II. Canine Companions for Independence — a national nonprofit organization providing trained assistance dogs for children, adults and veterans with disabilities — matched Jiminy with Niskayuna resident Michael St. Jeanos, who is receiving his second assistance dog from Canine Companions.

Michael was matched with Jiminy, a two-year-old black labrador retriever who has been trained to respond to over 40 advanced commands.  Jiminy can turn light switches on and off, open and close doors and retrieve dropped objects. However, one of his most important jobs will be to provide constant companionship for Michael, after his first assistance dog, Anton, passed away last year after 10 years of loving service.

“Jiminy is a very special dog and we hope to have many wonderful years with him.”

—Laurie St. Jeanos

The Cavagnaro family raised Jiminy from an eight-week-old puppy, and said goodbye to him after a year and a half of training.  Heidi and Andrew worked to teach the dog basic commands, and all-important socialization skills. When he was old enough to begin advanced training, Jiminy was returned to the Canine Companions Northeast Training Center in Medford, where he worked for six months with the organization’s nationally renowned instructors, learning the over 40 commands.                  

Michael and Jiminy were matched after completing Canine Companion’s recent Team Training Class, an intense, two-week course held at the organization’s training center — one of six such centers nationwide. The Northeast Training Center serves a 13-state area from Maine to Virginia.

Each student who attends Team Training – held at each center four times a year – is paired with a fully-trained, working assistance dog, like Jiminy, and is taught to work with his/her canine companion. The training course consists of daily lectures, exams, practice and public outings.

Michael and Jiminy are now settling into a routine back home.

“Jiminy is a very special dog and we hope to have many wonderful years with him,” Michael’s mother Laurie said. “We can’t thank Heidi and Andrew Cavagnaro enough.”

Canine Companions for Independence is the largest nonprofit provider of trained assistance dogs, with training centers in New York, Florida, Ohio, Texas and California. The group has placed over 5,000 assistance dogs.  There is no charge for the dog, its training and on-going follow-up services.  For more information, visit www.cci.org or call 1-800-572-BARK (2275).

Lisa Egry and her son Shaun meet his second companion dog, a yellow lab/golden retriever mix named Honey, last year. Photo from Canine Companions for Independence

A Setauket woman is doing her part to provide a best friend for someone in need in the form of a black lab/golden retriever puppy named Yucca II.

Since late July, Michele Galasso, 50, has been a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence — a national nonprofit organization that matches highly trained assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities at no cost to the recipients. And she couldn’t be happier.

“It’s wonderful and life affirming,” said Galasso. “I know the power and the beauty and the love that dogs bring to people — it’s an inspiring thing. It feels so good that I can help make that happen for a person.”

Ever since Yucca II turned 8 weeks old, it’s been Galasso’s job to take her into her home, raise her, teach her basic commands and socialization skills, and expose her to any and all types of surroundings by the time she leaves after 18 months of standard training.

From there, Galasso will return her puppy to CCI’s regional headquarters in Medford, where another six months of more advanced training will take place.

Ultimately, if Yucca II passes a rigorous evaluation process based on her different strengths, she can be matched with a person who might need her — a wounded veteran or an abused child, for instance.

CCI’s standards for the dogs are exceedingly high, with only about four out of 10 making it through the program, and so the puppy raisers are considered the backbones of the organization.

By the time they are fully trained, the dogs know more than 40 commands and be able to perform helpful tasks such as turn lights on and off, open and close doors, pick up dropped items and even help their human get dressed, according to John Bentzinger, CCI’s public relations coordinator.

“If you’re someone who wants to have some degree of independence … on command, these dogs can pick up an item as small as a dime and put it in your lap for you,” he said in a phone interview. “The more puppies being raised, the more people we can serve.”

Galasso said she was inspired to get involved with CCI when she met fellow dog lover Caryl Swain, who had been a longtime CCI puppy raiser. It was Swain who encouraged Galasso to attend a puppy training class at CCI, as well as a graduation ceremony in which diplomas were given out and leashes were ceremoniously handed over from the puppy raiser to the dog’s permanent recipient.

It was this ceremony that sealed the deal for Galasso.

“When I saw the individuals with their families receive their new service dogs, I knew that this was the service endeavor I have been searching for,” she said.

After a thorough interview process, including a rundown of all of her new responsibilities as a puppy raiser, like taking care of vet bills and food, and a long waiting period, CCI eventually told her to come pick up her puppy on July 29.

Galasso said that raising Yucca II is a lot of work but extremely rewarding. Yucca II is well mannered and loves working on her one-word commands, she said. Galasso puts a special yellow cape on Yucca II as she is permitted to go to many public areas that family pets aren’t allowed to, and visits the nearby senior center once a week.

To help the puppy adjust to a wide variety of surfaces, Galasso walks her indoors, outdoors, on the grass, in the street, as well as busy areas like Stony Brook Village. She’s also training her not to eat off the floor, in case the person she’ll assist were to drop their medication.

Galasso said that Yucca II loves people, especially children. On Halloween, she said Yucca II even sat in the middle of the stairs, which face a storm door with see-through glass only at the top of it, so she could look out and see the kids as they came up in their costumes.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Oh, I hope she gets placed with a child,’ because she really loves them.”

Last year in Mount Sinai, a young man named Shaun Egry — who suffers from cerebral palsy — was matched with an assistance dog from CCI. His mother Lisa said that they’ve been involved with CCI since 2004 and received their first dog in 2007 when Shaun was just 10 years old, confined to a wheelchair and in need of a friend.

She said the dogs have not only helped him physically, but emotionally too.

“He went from not speaking in public and being kind of embarrassed and ashamed to being very outgoing, and now he talks so much that he just doesn’t stop anymore,” said Lisa Egry. “It’s just a big confidence builder, and gave him what he needs to not feel so self-conscious of his disability.”

As a puppy raiser, Galasso knows that the toughest part of the job will be returning Yucca II back to headquarters, which she’ll have to do in February 2018. But it’s been stressed by CCI that a majority of the dogs are deemed unsuitable to be matched with anybody and, in that case, are then offered back to the puppy raisers as pets. Of course Galasso would be thrilled to bring Yucca II in permanently, she said, but she has faith that the puppy has what it takes to make it.

“My hope is that she succeeds through all her training and becomes an assistance dog,” said Galasso. “She’s a very special pup: She has a very sweet, easygoing temperament, she’s highly motivated to learn and she’s in excellent health. I just feel very strongly about the good that she can do for someone.”

DogFest Walk ‘n Roll Long Island takes place on Sat.

Giavanna DeStefano, flanked by mom Cynthia, and Harry, a golden Labrador retriever, meet at a training session in February. Photo from John Bentzinger

They say dog is man’s best friend, and for one Northport family, the adage couldn’t be any truer.

The DeStefanos are on a quest to raise money this week for Canine Companions for Independence’s DogFest Walk ‘n Roll fundraising event. The nonprofit group matches assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities at no cost to the individual.

It was through CCI that Northport 9-year-old Giavanna DeStefano, who is disabled, met Harry, a golden Labrador, in February. And life has changed significantly for the DeStefanos since he joined their family, according to Giavanna’s mom, Cynthia DeStefano.

“Harry cleans her room for her,” DeStefano said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “For me, I should say. She likes having him around. It’s like her little buddy that’s there for her.”

Harry is Giavanna’s friend and helper. The girl, who was born with a genetic anomaly called Trisomy 9 Mosaicism syndrome, is nonverbal and has global developmental delays and balances issues. For instance, if someone were to bump into her, she would fall and wouldn’t know to brace herself to cushion the fall. She can only speak about seven words.

The dog is trained in more than 40 commands, and can do things like open and close doors, turn light switches on and off, and pick up dropped items for Giavanna, according to John Bentzinger, public relations spokesperson for the group.

“But his main job will be to give her constant companionship, and he is a social bridge to her peers,” Bentzinger said in an email.

The dogs go through a rigorous training process. It costs about $45,000 to train each of the dogs, and it’s through the DogFest Walk ‘n Roll that CCI helps raise money to fund some of those expenses, Bentzinger said. Last year, the group raised more than $40,000, and this year, they are aiming for $60,000.

There’s a waiting list of about a year and a half for one dog. CCI owns 53 dogs in the northeast region, and the nonprofit owns more than 500 dogs nationally.

Harry is Giavanna’s companion. The two-year-old lab sleeps with her at night. When Giavanna returns home from school, Harry gets antsy awaiting her arrival, when he hears the bus. He picks up her stuffed animal toys around the room. He swims in the family’s shallow pool with her. He attends doctors appointments with her.

When his vest is on, Harry is ready to go to work, Giavanna’s mom said.

“He’s helpful for her,” she said. “He’s very funny.”

Through Harry, Giavanna is gaining a greater sense of responsibility. Giavanna helps her mother groom and feed him, take him for walks. Having Harry by Giavanna’s side makes her more approachable and gives her more attention, which she likes, her mom said.

“They see him, they see her, and it softens the whole ‘what’s wrong with this situation’ kind of thing,” she said.

Experiencing life with Harry motivated the DeStefanos to give back by fundraising for CCI, Cynthia DeStefano said.

“It’s a great organization,” she said. “Going through the program was amazing, and to see what these dogs can do, and how they adapt to each person’s needs, is an amazing thing. We’re blessed to have been able to do this.”

So far, they’ve raised $185 out of their $300 goal. To donate to the DeStefanos’ team, go to their fundraising page at www.tinyurl.com/nn3sn4y.

The fundraiser DogFest Walk ‘n Roll Long Island takes place this Saturday, Oct. 3, at Marjorie Post Park in Massapequa. For more information, visit www.cci.org.

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