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service dogs

Tom Lambui leads a dog through an obstacle course designed to distract at the Paws of War Nesconset facility. Photo by Kyle Barr

Those servicemen and women who have had their dog trained at the Nesconset nonprofit Paws of War know the best companion to have when past trauma returns, is a trained service dog at their side.

“You can’t imagine how much dogs make an impact on your life,” said Frank James, a retired police officer from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

James is training his dog Bailey for service dog certification through Paws of War, an organization which helps provide service dogs and train them for retired service members. The former police officer said having a service dog has helped him deal with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder after being at the scene of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Russell Keyser sits with his service dog, Artemis. Photo by Kyle Barr

“She’s helped significantly, really significantly,” he said.

For the last five years, Paws of War has provided service dogs and emotional support dogs along with the necessary training to veterans of all stripes, from those in the armed services to former cops and emergency responders. Robert Misseri, a co-founder of Paws of War, said the nonprofit provides the training for service members entirely free of charge.

“If they are approved, we train their dog at the very least, with all behavioral training to work toward a service animal for their needs,” Misseri said.

U.S. Army veteran Russell Keyzer, of Ronkonkoma, said he got his service dog,  Artemis, through Paws of War three years ago. Artemis has helped Keyzer get through the most difficult parts of his post-military life, including managing the effects of his PTSD.

“I was in really, really bad shape when I got her.” he said. “I got her at two months old, and I started training right away. Things were a lot more therapeutic on my end — to get back to that normal life.”

Keyzer said Artemis helped save him during a difficult situation at a June 22 Foreigner concert at Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater. When the lights flashed and the music cut through the noise of the
audience, Keyzer said he started to tense up and his PTSD that has haunted him since he left the Army, started to creep into his head. He knew he couldn’t be there anymore.

Paws of War trains service dogs, like Phoenix, for veterans, former law enforcement and first responders. Photo by Kyle Barr

“Get me the (expletive) out of here,” Keyzer recalled saying to Artemis.

With his hand wrapped around the dog’s leash, Artemis helped guide the distraught veteran through the crowd, away from the noise and the lights, until they reached emergency medical personnel.

Suffolk County officials have come to recognize Paws of War and the work it does. On July 2, Suffolk Sheriff  Errol Toulon Jr. (D) announced a 2-year-old black Labrador named Rocky to be trained by inmate Jermaine, a veteran himself diagnosed with PTSD who is currently serving time at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank. Jermaine will train the dog twice a week for eight weeks, before Rocky will be given to Babylon resident Harry Stolberg, a single father and Marine Corps veteran who also has PTSD.

Those interested can watch Rocky’s training live online at the website www.suffolksheriff.com with the first broadcast scheduled for July 4.

Misseri said that so many veterans have become interested in the program that the organization needs to move into a larger space. They have already picked one out — a storefront located in the same Nesconset Plaza shopping center on Smithtown Boulevard as their current home. Misseri said the new location would provide the organization with hundreds more square feet of space.

Mark Hayward works on training his service dog, Phoenix, at VetDogs in Nesconset. Photo by Kyle Barr

“We could really serve so many more veterans,” Misseri said. “There’s plenty of people who want to go into a class with our current space, but we can only take 10 people per lesson — in this new space we could take 30.”

Paws of War is entirely funded by donations and spends most of its money paying for dog trainers. It is seeking out volunteer plumbers, painters, electricians, carpenters, floor specialists and sign makers to help renovate the new shop.

In the meantime, veterans find hope for the future in the form of their dogs. Mark Hayward, an Army veteran who participated in Operation Desert Storm, walked his dog, Phoenix, through obstacles designed to
distract her. Every time she went through the course without turning her head, Hayward would look down and smile at her.

“It’s between night and day from before I got her in 2016 and now,” he said. “She helps me get out and do things a lot more. I named her Phoenix because, like they say, she is helping me rise from the ashes.”

Those veterans who are interested in obtaining a service dog, or individuals willing to volunteer their assistance in the organization’s upcoming move, can contact Paws of War at at 631-367-7297 or online at www.pawsofwar.org.

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Former President George H.W. Bush, former President Bill Clinton and Sully together at the Bush family estate in Maine. Photo from Evan Sisley

A Smithtown-based nonprofit has given a former United States president a new best friend to help him through his golden years.

America’s VetDogs delivered a specially trained service dog to former President George H.W. Bush at his family’s Maine estate June 25. Two staff members were on hand as Sully, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, met the president for the first time.

“Sully is a very compassionate dog, skilled at the tasks of retrieval and opening and closing doors,” said John Miller, president and CEO of America’s VetDogs. “Between his temperament and his skills, we knew he would be the right fit for the president.”

Sully sits by former President George H.W. Bush. Photo from Instagram @sullyhwbush

America’s VetDogs, a sister 501(c)(3) organization to the Guide Dog Foundation, trains and places guide dogs for veterans and first responders who are blind or have impaired vision or have lost their hearing. The organization also trains service dogs for those who suffer from physical disabilities or have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Bush first learned and made contact with America’s VetDogs to request a service dog through their program at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, according to Miller. He said the organization has three service dogs in the hospital who assist veterans who are currently inpatients for operations or in recovery.

“They work all day long going room-to-room to cheer up veterans to assist them, retrieve items as small as a credit card or cane, and open or close doors,” Miller said. “Most importantly, they bring smiles to all the veterans.

Sully, who was hand selected for Bush, is named after the former airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, who became famous after he safely landed a damaged passenger jet on the Hudson River in 2009. The Labrador was raised and trained through the VetDogs prison puppy program, in which inmates raise future service dogs until they are 15 months old. The inmates work with the puppies on housebreaking, obedience, standardized commands and three basic service dog tasks: retrieve, push and pull.

America’s VetDogs trained a service dog, Sully, to accompany former President George H.W. Bush. Photo from Instagram @sullyhwbush

Once America’s VetDogs staff selected a service dog for the president, Miller said they created a video that demonstrated Sully’s skills and took a number of photographs to send to Bush and his staff. Two staff members made the flight to the Bush’s family compound, Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport, Maine, to introduce the president to his new canine companion.

“Sully has been getting rave reviews from the president,” Miller said. Bush’s staff members have already set up an Instagram account, @sullyhwbush, to share photos of the dog meeting with the president and exploring his new home. The account had more than 33,000 followers as of the date of this publication.

Bush’s staff member could not be reached for comment on Sully.

America’s VetDogs has previously trained a service dog for former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Arizona) who was shot while at a campaign stop in 2011, according to Miller, but never before a president. Each dog costs more than $50,000 to breed, raise, train and place, but is provided at no cost by VetDogs to the individual receiver thanks to donations from corporations, foundations and businesses.

“Sully will be the highest profile service dog in the history of the country,” Miller said.

To learn more about the Smithtown-based nonprofit, visit its website at www.VetDogs.org.

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.”

A fundraiser was held for VetDogs, an organization that pairs veterans with service dogs, at a golf fundrasier in Huntington. Photo by Sara Ging

By Sara Ging

The dog days summer were far from over Aug. 29 in Huntington.

The 7th Annual VetDogs Golf Classic kicked off at Huntington Country Club on Monday, and since its inception in 2009, the tournament has raised more than $1 million for the Smithtown nonprofit organization, which trains service dogs and places them with veterans and first responders. Total funds raised by the Golf Classic for America’s VetDogs was not immediately known at the time of publication.

Ret. Navy Lt. Melanie Monts de Oca and her service dog Liberty smile at the golf fundrasier in Huntington. Photo by Sara Ging
Ret. Navy Lt. Melanie Monts de Oca and her service dog Liberty smile at the golf fundrasier in Huntington. Photo by Sara Ging

Two veterans who received service dogs from the nonprofit were in attendance as guests of honor at the Golf Classic. Retired Army Maj. Peter Way and Retired Navy Lt. Melanie Monts de Oca both credit their dogs with improving their quality of life tremendously.

Way lost his right leg in 2014 due to complications from an injury sustained during active duty service in Afghanistan in 2003, and got his dog Rory right around the time he was discharged from service. “It’s unbelievable all that he does for me,” Way said at the event. “He’s hands when I need them, he’s a leg when I need it. … He adapts and takes on new stuff constantly, learns what I need and works with it.”

In addition to helping him adjust to his prosthetic leg, Way credits Rory with helping him cope with his post traumatic stress disorder and reintegrate socially.

“I thought of myself as highly functional, but I was highly dysfunctional,” Way said of his recovery process before Rory. “I had successfully cut myself off from just about everybody.” With Rory’s support, Way is now very socially and physically active. He is in training to potentially compete in the Paralympic biathlon, and has been on the VetDogs board since 2015.

Monts de Oca spent 10 years in the Navy before being medically retired for injuries and illness in 2013. She got her dog Liberty in 2014. Like Way, she credits her dog with helping her both physically and emotionally.

“I just wasn’t living my life anymore, because I was in pain and I was sick all the time,” Monts de Oca says. “She’s my lifeline. She got me moving again.” Liberty is specifically trained to help with mobility, balance, and to get help in the case of emergency.

VetDogs began in 2003 as Guide Dog Foundation project, and became a separate entity in 2006. Some staff, resources, and training facilities are still shared between the two Smithtown-based charities. Guide Dog Foundation began in 1946 with the aim of helping visually impaired veterans of World War II, and eventually expanded to serve civilians with visual impairment as well.

Navy Seal Cadet Corps, NY LPD 21st Division, presenting colors for the national anthem on the green during the America’s VetDogs fundraiser. Photo by Sara Ging
Navy Seal Cadet Corps, NY LPD 21st Division, presenting colors for the national anthem on the green during the America’s VetDogs fundraiser. Photo by Sara Ging

Unlike Guide Dog Foundation, which only trains guide dogs for the visually impaired, VetDogs raises and trains a number of different kinds of service dogs to help with balance issues, hearing impairment, seizures, and PTSD, among other disabilities. The cost of preparing each dog to work as a service dog is estimated at more than $50,000. This includes not only the rigorous specialized training period that takes place during three to four months, but also the process of breeding the dogs, raising them as puppies until they’re old enough for training, and funding a two-week intensive program on the Smithtown campus to teach veterans to work effectively with their dogs. Some dogs are trained to help treat or mitigate multiple issues, depending on the needs of each veteran. VetDogs also covers any necessary retraining and some preventative medical costs for the dogs.

Katherine Fritz, director of development, said there is never a cost to applicants who receive guide dogs.

Golfer Jim Barling has participated in the VetDogs Golf Classic at the Huntington Country Club all seven years. He is on the golf committee that organizes the event each year and considers it a success story, with local golfers and sponsors coming from Huntington, Brookville, and Northport. Participation is limited by the size of the green, so the tournament is limited to about 130 people. He said there is never any trouble filling those spots.

“We sell out every year,” Barling said. While there are new participants, he estimates that 80 percent of golfers return yearly.

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