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Service Dog

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.

A service dog presentation at MetLife Stadium this past year. Photo from Don McKay

The Northport Cow Harbor Warriors will be presenting a service dog to a 2005 Northport High School graduate and veteran this Saturday, April 9, at 7 p.m.

Hosted in partnership with the Cpl. Christopher G. Scherer Semper Fi Fund, the veteran, who served as a U.S. Marine during Operation Iraqi Freedom, will receive the dog at Napper Tandy’s Irish Pub in Northport as part of a fundraiser for the Cow Harbor Warriors Weekend.

The warriors weekend is an event hosted on Sept. 9 and 10, where wounded warriors and veterans in need, along their families, are invited to Northport for a weekend of recreation, celebration and appreciation.

“Service dogs are invaluable in helping our veterans adjust and adapt to life after war,” Don McKay, president of Cow Harbor Warriors said in a statement. “It’s simply incredible to witness the life-changing impact these dogs can have for our warriors.”

Live music will be provided by Common Ground, and raffle prizes include an inflatable stand-up paddle board, private charter sunset cruise, half-day bass fishing trip, a fun day on the water and more. Tickets can be purchased at the door or online at www.cowharborwarriors.com for $40, with buffet, beer and wine.

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.