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Assistance Dog

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).

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.