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therapy dogs

Students got to interact with therapy dogs before the start of their exams. Photo from Andrew Harris

In the Comsewogue High School cafeteria, where the air would usually becomes tense with the anticipation of final exams at the end of the school year, signs were posted on empty chairs during regents week which read, “Come pet me… and chill.”

School Social Worker Taylor Zummo said that the dogs had an incredible impact on the students. Photo from Andrew Harris

Quickly those empty chairs filled up and lines started to form behind them. Sitting in the now filled chair was a student who would be taking their regents within the next few minutes. Opposite them was a therapy dog and it’s handler, both welcoming the student to relieve a little stress with a friendly canine.

“They have a calming effect on people,” said Bill Bodkin, a retired teacher and administrator at the high school. “The animals benefit just as much as the humans do. Medically, it lowers blood pressure and the pulse rate of the person petting them.”

Bodkin’s dog, Corey, was trained with the Smithtown-based nonprofit Guide Dog Foundation, and together they often visit hospitals, nursing homes, and schools.

The idea of bringing in dogs before the regents exams was welcomed by high school Principal Joseph Coniglione. The dogs were an instant hit, with students gravitated to the dogs and some stayed with them up until the instant they went to take their exams.

Several other therapy dogs were sent in from Dog Works in Holtsville, where they go through rigorous training to become certified.

“These dogs are very unique, and not all of them make it through the process.” Said Deb Feliziani, who works for Holbrook-based Dog Works and is the owner and trainer for the hounds Gabby, Bette and Comet, all who levelled their training to aid the high schoolers.

In addition to the therapy dogs, district teachers said students were taught meditation and breathing techniques to help lower stress and anxiety before testing.

“As students waited to take their regents exams, in a room that is typically filled with nervousness and fear, there was a lighthearted energy that took over as they interacted with the therapy dogs,” said Taylor Zummo, a high school social worker. “Between the smiles on their faces and the laughs of excitement, it was clear that these dogs had an incredible impact on the students. There is something quite powerful that happens when dogs are in a room, and it was apparent that the students could feel it too.”

Tom King, a special education teacher, has been taking his own certified therapy dog named Bailey, a Labradoodle, to class for years. King and Bailey walked around to students who had pre-testing jitters and were quickly surrounded by them all wanting to pet Bailey.

From left, retired teacher Bill Bodkin, Teacher Dave Hughes and Principal Joe Coniglione said the dogs lightened the mood for students taking the regents. Photo from Andrew Harris

Overall, the visits were a huge success, said Andrew Harris, a special needs teacher and advocate for therapy and service dogs who helped get the dogs to the high school.

“I saw many of my students light up when a dog comes to visit our class,” he said. “I especially see this for students with Autism and decided to make it a part of my curriculum. You would be amazed if you saw the level of excellence these students rise to when they know a dog is visiting.”

Harris added he has been training dogs for years, though he had taken advice from Feliziani to travel to Canada to find the “perfect dog.” This young hound named Ramsey has learned to alert people with medical emergencies and assist with walking up and down stairs. At only 11 months he can climb ladders, complete obstacle courses and assist people. At home, the dog acts a protector and house pet to him and his family.

“He has been in training since the day he was born and has taken rides on various forms of public transportation and socialized with people and other animals,” Harris said. “I think it helps me be a better teacher because you continually learn positive reinforcement.”

Teachers at the high school said they expect to utilize the dogs in the future in the school district.

Information provided by Andrew Harris

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.